Özil’s burden: on quitting Germany football team

Mesut Özil’s withdrawal from the German football team on Sunday came as a shock to many. One of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, Özil has been a mainstay of the Die Mannschaft — as the national squad is called — for almost a decade, as his 23 goals and 40 assists from 92 appearances attest. But when he released an explosive statement, with a declaration that he could no longer wear the German shirt with “pride and excitement” because of “racism and disrespect”, it caused many a football fan to shudder. The turn of events has its roots in Özil and fellow footballer İlkay Gündoğan meeting Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in London and presenting him with shirts just before the World Cup. Both Özil and Gündoğan are Germany-born players of Turkish origin and their act was perceived as an endorsement of the Turkish leader, who is widely derided for leading his country down the path of autocracy with rampant human rights violations. Germany’s surprise first-round exit from the 2018 World Cup in Russia produced a convenient brickbat to target Özil with, and it was compounded by the vitriol directed at him. From DFB (German Football Association) president Reinhard Grindel to the legendary skipper Lothar Matthäus to sections of the media, the Arsenal playmaker spared no one as he alleged they had “disrespected his Turkish roots” and “selfishly turned [him] into political propaganda.”

The episode has unravelled at a time when Germany is at a crossroads — over whether to move forward and forge a more cosmopolitan, open society or retreat into its nationalistic past. Özil, apart from his immigrant background, is a practising Muslim, and when Germany won the 2014 World Cup he was the poster boy of the DFB’s efforts to make football inclusive. That one international failure — which could be explained purely in footballing terms — can lead to such a vile debate clearly indicates the fault lines. “I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose,” lamented the 29-year-old. To have his loyalty questioned even after he gave up his Turkish passport in order to play for Germany must have been distressing. However, Özil has unwittingly walked into an unnecessary controversy over a sensitive issue. Meeting President Erdoğan may have been “about respecting the highest office of his family’s country”, but he should have been mindful of the fact that Germany and Turkey shared a tenuous relationship, with the Turkish President having accused Angela Merkel’s government of being stuck in Germany’s Nazi past. And when a minister in the Turkish Cabinet termed Özil’s move to quit as the “most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism”, it hit Germany where it hurt the most. When Özil said he had “two hearts, one German, one Turkish,” he was attempting a delicate balancing act, favouring integration — a cherished modern-day value — over assimilation. Little did he expect that it would be so rough a ride.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 11:31:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/zils-burden/article24506022.ece

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