Mesut Ozil retires from German national team, cites racism as reason for decision


Veteran midfielder Mesut Ozil announced his retirement from the German national team on Sunday, and he did his best to shake the very foundation of the country’s soccer federation in the process.

Less than a month after Germany’s embarrassing exit in group play from the 2018 World Cup, the squad’s second-most capped player tweeted he would no longer be suiting up for the national team. Ozil, who has played for Premier League club Arsenal since 2013, will retire at 29 years old with a 2014 World Cup win, 92 appearances and 23 international goals under his belt.

Mesut Ozil’s German national team retirement announcement

To announce his decision, Ozil tweeted a lengthy and devastating statement that spanned multiple pages. In the third tweet, Ozil laid the reason for his retirement squarely at the feet of German soccer federation president Reinhard Grindel and others who criticized a meeting and photo with Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is so much to unpack in that 2,000-plus word statement, but the part that cuts deepest seems to be Ozil explaining how he feels he is perceived by Grindel and company, during victory and during defeat. Ozil is a third generation Turkish-German who was born in Germany to German-born parents, grew up in Germany and played for teams in Germany until he was purchased by Real Madrid in 2010. He is also a practicing Muslim.

In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different’. I received the ‘Bambi Award’ in 2010 as an example of successful integration to German society, I received a ‘Silver Laurel Leaf’ in 2014 from the Federal Republic of Germany, and I was a ’German Football Ambassador’ in 2015. But clearly, I am not German … ?

Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue. By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?

Ozil also cited statements from multiple German politicians, racist taunts from fans and a massive amount of hate mail as examples of the hostile climate he and his family faced that led to his decision.

Mesut Ozil is not alone in how he feels

Ozil’s line about being seen as German when the team wins and an immigrant when it loses is not a new phenomenon. Multiple European soccer stars of foreign descent have described a similar feeling in the past.

Romelu Lukaku, Belgium’s leading scorer during the World Cup, wrote in a Player’s Tribune article last month, “When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

French striker Karim Benzema put it more succinctly in 2011, saying “If I score I’m French … if I don’t, I’m an Arab.”

Mesut Ozil had plenty to say in his statement retiring from the German national team. (Getty Images)
Mesut Ozil had plenty to say in his statement retiring from the German national team. (Getty Images)

What led to Mesut Ozil’s retirement?

So, how did we get to the point that one of Germany’s star players is retiring from international play at just 29 years old and seems intent on taking down the national team’s president with him?

The quick answer is that Germans reportedly turned Ozil into the fall guy for their World Cup fiasco. Some of that came down to criticisms of Ozil’s efforts on defense, but a good chunk of it seemed racially coded, like when German soccer legend Lothar Matthaus wrote in a newspaper column that “With Ozil on the pitch I often have the feeling that he does not feel comfortable in the German jersey, almost as if he does not want to play. There is no heart, no joy, no passion.”

The fallout of Ozil’s appearance with Erdogan seems to have magnified that sentiment, particularly with Grindel. In his statement, Ozil said the Erdogan meeting was more about honoring his roots and “had no political intentions,” but tensions reportedly came to a head when German coach Joachim Low requested Ozil talk with Grindel ahead of the World Cup.

After my picture with President Erdogan l was asked by Joachim Low to cut short my holiday and go to Berlin and give a joint statement to end all the talk and set the record straight.

Whilst I attempted to explain to Grindel my heritage, ancestry and therefore reasoning behind the photo, he was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion. Whilst his actions were patronising, we came to agree that the best thing to do was to concentrate on football and the upcoming World Cup.

With the World Cup now over and the German team humiliated, Ozil claimed Grindel used him as “a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly.”

Mesut Ozil’s retirement takes place in a larger context

While this whole incident has played out in the arena of sports, it takes place in the larger context of German and Turkish politics. Ozil said he wanted to honor his ancestry by meeting the head of state of Turkey, but the statement such an action makes is complicated when that head of state has been described by the Washington Post editorial board as a dictator turning the country into a totalitarian prison.

Political tensions in Germany around immigrants also aren’t limited to Turkey, as immigration policy has led to German chancellor Angela Merkel drawing fire from nearly all sides. And those tensions seem to reach even third-generation immigrants, as it’s apparent that Ozil no longer feels accepted as a German soccer player.

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