One of international soccer’s brightest stars retired from the German national team on Sunday, citing racism from fans, German media, and federation officials.
Mesut Özil, a five-time German footballer of the year award winner and a World Cup winner in 2014, released a lengthy statement on social media explaining his decision, claiming to have experienced racism and disrespect due to his Turkish ancestry, and saying he is seen as “German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
Born in Germany to Turkish parents, Özil was once seen as a hero of German football. In 2010, Özil was presented with a “Bambi Award” for being a model of integration into German society. In 2014, he led the German national team in their winning World Cup campaign. Throughout his youth, Özil repeatedly turned down offers from the Turkish football federation.
But the simmering racism and criticism against Özil came to a head in May, one month before the World Cup, when he posed for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The photo generated a firestorm against Özil and his compatriot Ilkay Gundogan, also a German national teamer of Turkish lineage, for what appeared to be an implicit endorsement of Erdogan’s repressive policies and targeting of any opposition. Erdogan reportedly used the photos in his re-election campaign.
Özil’s teammate Gundogan quickly moved to counter the outcry stemming from the Erdogan photo, but Özil remained quiet in preparation for the tournament in Russia. Germany was knocked out in the group stages after losing to Mexico and South Korea. The result was widely seen as disastrous for a team with such a successful history, and despite underperformance from multiple star players, Özil became the lightning rod for criticism.
Oliver Bierhoff, the German football team’s business manager and a legendary player in his own right, spoke publicly about how bringing Özil to the World Cup might have been a mistake. Reinhard Grindel, the head of the German Football Association (DFB), said Özil would now have to address the photo. Grindel’s words were largely believed to be a deflection from his own role in Germany’s dismal performance in Russia.
On Sunday, Özil did just that, explaining that his photo with Erdogan was not a political message or endorsement. In his statement, Özil said he has “two hearts” — one Turkish and one German — and that had he not met with the Turkish leader, it would be perceived as disrespectful to his ancestors’ roots.
Özil went on to detail the racist abuse he’s suffered at the hands of the German media and fans because of the photo. German politician Bernd Hozhauer called him a “goat-fucker.” After the German team’s solitary win against Sweden, a fan called him a “Turkish pig.”
Özil also outlined the disastrous meeting he had with Grindel, the DFB head and a career politician with the Christian Democrats who once said multiculturalism is a “myth and a lifelong lie,” and pointed out Grindel’s double standards for staying silent when former national team captain and current DFB ambassador, Lothar Mätthaus, cheerily greeted Russian President Vladimir Putin — a leader with his own reputation for repression and violence.
“I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly,” Özil said.
The controversy and racism against Özil is taking place at a critical time in German immigration policy, when Chancellor Angela Merkel is deciding whether to accept more refugees at the German-Austrian border. Many Germans have pushed back against such policies, with 72 percent of the population believing that the country’s approach to immigration is too careless. The Alternative for Germany (AFD), a populist and anti-immigrant party, is now the third largest party in the country and the largest opposition to Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
In Europe’s increasingly hostile and anti-immigrant environment, Özil’s experience with racism is not unique. Many of the players on the French national team, this year’s World Cup champions, have dealt with criticism and racism from right-wing politicians for years. Currently, 19 of the 23 players on the French team are migrants or the children of migrants and Les Bleus are one of the most diverse teams in Europe. That diversity is what led far-right leader Marine Le Pen to say in 2010 that “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.”