This weekend, German football superstar Mesut Özil announced that he would no longer be representing Germany in international football. Özil released a lengthy statement on Twitter Sunday night where he cited the backlash and racism he’s gotten from his German and Turkish heritage. Much of that came after he took a picture with Turkish President Recep Erdogan in May.
III / III pic.twitter.com/c8aTzYOhWU
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
The backlash Özil has received is indefensible. For starters, we don’t know how he actually feels about President Erdogan. What we do know is that other athletes who have criticized President Erdogan have had their families face backlash for their actions. Therefore if President Erdogan wants to take a picture with Özil, it’s probably in Özil’s best interests to simply take that picture and keep his mouth shut.
Özil’s stance highlights a much bigger issue in today’s society as a whole, that xenophobia not only still exists but exists at even the highest of levels. Most of Özil’s ire is directed at the head of the German FA, Reinhard Grindel. Grindel very vocally criticized Ozil, and Ozil said Grindel was “only interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion.”
Ozil also mentions that in 2004 while Grindel was a member of German parliament, he claimed “multiculturalism is in reality a myth and a lifelong lie [and] voted against legislation for dual nationalities and punishments for bribery as well as saying that Islamic culture has become too ingrained in too many German cities.”
These kinds of beliefs are not exclusive to Germany. Immigration is a hot topic everywhere. We certainly see it here in the United States, it’s become a major point regarding Brexit in England, and with France just winning the World Cup, there have been many people making remarks about how France was not made up of French players but rather of immigrants.
🇫🇷 All Together As One For France 🙌 pic.twitter.com/chvrJpSSJ9
— SPORF (@Sporf) July 17, 2018
This tweet by SPORF tried to highlight how great France’s diversity was but it also missed the point that not just the players, but all immigrants really want. A point that was perfectly highlighted in France left-back Benjamin Mendy’s response.
— Benjamin Mendy ⭐️⭐️ (@benmendy23) July 17, 2018
These players are all French. They or their parents may have emigrated to France but that doesn’t mean they are any less French. That doesn’t just go for these athletes, but for all immigrants. Just because they don’t forget where they came from, doesn’t make them any less belonging to their new home.
It’s great that Özil has finally taken a stand on this. I’m a big proponent of athletes taking a stand on their beliefs, especially because they have the platform to do so.
What I don’t like is the timing of Özil’s announcement and how that highlights another one of international soccer’s biggest issues. The players, as well as the federations, use each other for both glory and money.
There are two big examples that we can look at here. Özil is one, and the the other is how the U.S. Soccer Federation treated former Women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo.
In 2015, Solo was involved in several off-the-field issues, most prominently a domestic violence issue that saw many people calling for Solo to be removed from the field. Since Solo was the top goalkeeper on a team favored to win the upcoming World Cup, losing her could have had reciprocal damage within the US team.
In the end, the USSF only suspended Solo for 30 days, essentially sweeping the case under the rug. Solo was able to participate in both the World Cup, which the US won, as well as the 2016 Olympics.
After losing in semifinals in Rio, Solo criticized the way Sweden played when they beat the US. Apparently that was too much for the USSF, and with that they couldn’t have someone like Solo on the team anymore, suspending her for six months and never bringing her back.
For anyone that could read between the lines, it was obvious. The USSF protected Solo while they still had use for her. As soon as she could no longer help them win and make money, they got rid of her.
Özil”s timing with his announcement puts him in a similar boat. He’s about to turn 30 on a Germany team that was just exposed as too old in this past World Cup. Over the past few years, Özil has faced a lot of criticism for his on-field performances. The current German team is about to get a big makeover. They have a lot of young players that play in the same attacking positions as Özil, and it’s totally possible that Özil”s future with the national team could have been over anyway.
Therefore the timing of Özil”s announcement opens the door for questions as to whether he is trying to make this a “You can’t fire me, I quit!” situation. If Ozil really couldn’t stomach playing for Germany while Reinhart Grindell was president of the DFB, shouldn’t he have said something before the World Cup – especially since that’s when this scandal began? Wouldn’t his actions then had much more weight?
That represents the other side of this equation. Özil is a footballer, and like all footballers he dreams of playing in the World Cup. At this point in his career, the only way he can do that is by representing Germany. How could you ask a player to give up the one thing everyone dreams of? It should also be noted, that this situation has gotten drastically worse since the World Cup, as many German fans have placed the blame for Germany’s poor performance on Özil and his status as a dual national.
It’s a very hard line to find. Often standing for what you believe in requires a tremendous sacrifice, sometimes possibly even of your career. Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t found another NFL team after protesting for the things he believes in. Özil will likely never play international football again. His critics will say he’s just saying this now because his time with the national team was going to end anyway, but at least he did this in July and not late August when the roster for Germany’s UEFA Nations League matches will be announced, letting us know that this was certainly his own decision.
Özil should be applauded for taking a stand, but now we need more. The reaction from within Germany and the German FA have been disgusting. The burden now falls on to other players. Stand behind Özil and force the change. I don’t know what the best way to do that may be, but I do know that athletes are role models, athletes tend to drive the positive changes in our society, and this is a chance to do that. And maybe that can lead to a better model for both teams and athletes.