Recently, Mesut Özil sparked controversy, conflict and crisis as he announced his shock decision to step down from the German National team. The shockwaves felt by this choice come not merely from his departure, but from allegations of “racism and disrespect” over his Turkish heritage and cultural background that has ignited an intense examination and discussion into Germany’s attitude towards race and immigration. The ‘Özil saga’ transcends the realms of football and sporting competition. This is a story of how we define the increasingly complex issues of national identity, multiculturalism and how these manifest themselves in a supposedly ‘progressive’ society in 2018.
Taking a picture with a man who has received widespread backlash among politicians for crackdown on freedom of speech, unfair incarceration of political opponents and censorship of media should be considered ignorant and naïve to say the least
Widely regarded as one of the best German footballers of his generation, the origins of the Özil commotion was born when he posed for a photograph with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the run up to the World Cup. Erdogan is notoriously controversial leader, who has been accused of turning Turkey into an autocratic state and incarcerating dissenting journalists who he labels as terrorists. The incident was the subject of outrage among many who blamed Ozil for distracting from the team’s preparations ahead of the World Cup and subsequently scapegoated the player following the tragic self-destruction of the team in the group stages of the tournament. Chief among these dissenters was none other than the president of the German Football Association (DFB), Reinhard Grindel, who was the target of much of Özil’s resentment: “Whilst I attempted to explain 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.” For Özil, this meeting with the president did not serve to endorse Erdogan’s policies: “was not about politics or elections but about respecting the highest office of my family’s countries… not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors.”
Although Özil denies any affiliation politically to the Turkish president, taking a picture with a man who has received widespread backlash among politicians for crackdown on freedom of speech, unfair incarceration of political opponents and censorship of media should be considered ignorant and naïve to say the least. However, the far more critical and alarming matter that has transpired from this chaotic situation is reflected by Özil’s most scathing and significant remark : “In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” This sobering critique of national identity and multiculturalism is not new or unique but a reality that is deeply entrenched within an increasingly divisive, toxic and turbulent brand of politics that has permeated into many aspects of society, including sport.
To casually disregard and ignore sport and politics’ intrinsic connection is careless and dangerous
‘You should never mix sport and politics,’ is how the age-old cliché goes. However, this is one mantra I have found deeply problematic for some time. These two entities do not exist in a vacuum but are both foundational pillars that modern society is captivated by. The recent pandemonium in England during the World Cup is testament to how sport can unite a nation, peoples and diverse cultures like very little else on the planet. To casually disregard and ignore sport and politics’ intrinsic connection is careless and dangerous. On Sunday night, when Mesut Özil shared with the world his deep-rooted thoughts, emotions and frustrations in an extremely candid, cutting and provocative statement, the sport was unceremoniously launched into the unrelenting arena of politics.
Despite German prime minister Angela Merkel’s public commitment to the defence of open borders in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, Grindel’s ascent to the apex of the bureaucratic hierarchy of the DFB and his position as a former MP of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union raises serious questions over perspectives on immigration and integration of minorities. Özil’s accusations highlight Grindel’s comments in a 2004 parliamentary speech, calling multiculturalism “ a myth and a lifelong lie.” During Merkel’s stewardship of the CDU, her failure to challenge her party’s cynical outlook on multiculturalism as a dangerous threat reflects inherent fractures not only in sport, but in European power structures from the top down. The fact that the Arsenal midfielder had been promoted for several years as the poster boy for the state’s approach to integrating ethnic minorities only serves as a damning indictment of German policy and exposes the complexities of what we understand by ‘national identity.’
Özil has illuminated the persistence of islamophobia and extreme right wing politics as they continue to undermine the realisation and acceptance of an integrated multicultural society
Turning a blind eye to this intimate association of sport and politics therefore only serves to propagate racism, bigotry and discrimination of diasporas and ethnic minorities. What is revealed by this incident is the disturbing fragility of multiculturalism and its power to thrive and unite. It exists beneath a thin veneer of political tactics and strategy. Too often multiculturalism is celebrated as a part of national identity to the extent it benefits the state’s priorities, yet in times of struggle and hardship, that same diversity is recklessly stigmatized as the central cause of failure for the nation.
An article in the Germany weekly newspaper Die Ziet effectively captured the destructive realities of attitudes towards immigration and ethnic minorities: “In Özil, we are also losing faith in a progressive society… His withdrawal is a fatal symbol in a time and a country in which rightwing parties are getting ever louder and people in town squares call for refugees to drown in the sea.” The Özil affair has illuminated the persistence of islamophobia and extreme right wing politics as they continue to undermine the realisation and acceptance of an integrated multicultural society. For a vocal and resilient collective, the prevailing sentiment is a belief that Turkish immigrants are guests who should return to their true homeland as illustrated by Alice Weidel, Leader of far right group Alternative fur Deutschland when she said, “a typical example of the failed integration of far too many immigrants from Turkish Muslim cultural circles”.
Decisions like Brexit reveal that the concept of identity is far more complex than it appears on the surface
This crisis is symptomatic of an and enduring structural problem that goes well beyond the confines of Germany. It poses the question of how we should reconcile the concepts of national identity within the sphere of sport- and outside it too. Of all Özil’s provocative remarks, the message that personally resonated with me was his emphasis on not forgetting where he came from: “ I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.” As a British Indian citizen myself, I empathize with Ozil’s situation. I have always considered my identity as a fusion and combination of backgrounds and influences, my loyalty and emotions embedded in both cultures ranging from support for cricket teams to religion and values. Yet decisions like Brexit reveal that the concept of identity is far more complex than it appears on the surface and brings to light the challenges and struggles multicultural societies must still overcome in an apparently progressive world in 2018.
When even the world cup champions France, the hallmark of ethnic diversity’s success, undertake an introspection into the ‘Africanness’ of their squad’s achievements, it is clear that the blurred lines of comprehending identity and culture are not going away anytime soon. In the increasingly turbulent , polarising and confusing worlds of sport and politics, the realisation of a truly integrated multicultural world still has a long way to go.