Mesut Özil’s Germany saga is symptomatic of a world under strain

Midfielder’s retirement from international football sadly illustrates that, in a polarising world, the ideas of multiculturalism are struggling to regain the upper hand

When a Radio 5 Live newsreader referred to “the English rider Geraint Thomas” in an item on the Tour de France this week, the response from those with Welsh blood in their veins ranged from a pained wince to a weary shrug. It was ignorant. It was annoying. But no one was going to war over it.

In other countries and other sports the question of national identity can provoke very different reactions. This week, for instance, Mesut Özil announced his retirement from international football over the response in Germany – and from the head of the DFB, the German football association, in particular – to a row that began when he posed for a photograph with the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in London in May.

Özil’s grandfather moved from Turkey to Germany as a gastarbeiter in the 1970s, settling in Gelsenkirchen, in the industrial Ruhr, where Mesut was born in 1988. His mother, he says, taught him not to forget where he came from. “I have two hearts,” he wrote in a statement responding to the initial furore, “one German and one Turkish.”

Erdoğan was in London to visit the Queen and Theresa May. In itself, plenty of people were unhappy about that. While dismantling the secular state established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk almost 100 years ago, he puts dissenting journalists in prison and calls them terrorists. Still, it seemed to be acceptable for the monarch and her prime minister to have their photograph taken with him on his visit to London. But not a footballer who was born to Turkish parents and has lived in Britain for the past five years.

Depending on our political perspective, you or I might recoil from the thought of standing alongside such an autocrat. But we might also try to understand the choice made by Özil – and by another man in the offending photograph, Ilkay Gündoğan, the Manchester City player and a fellow member of the Germany World Cup squad, whose grandfather also moved from Turkey to Gelsenkirchen, and who was invited to London to meet Erdoğan. Özil’s explanation for his decision was calm and lucid. “Not meeting the president would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today,” he said. “For me, it didn’t matter who was president, it mattered that it was the president.”

Had he gone on to play brilliantly in the World Cup, and had Germany as a result made a respectable defence of the title he helped them to win four years ago, all of it would now be forgotten, or at least ignored. But he did not. Yet although he was far from the only one to blame for the team’s disastrous showing, he was chosen as its symbol – most publicly by Reinhard Grindel, the president of the DFB, who had wanted him out of the squad but who had been dissuaded by Joachim Löw, the head coach, and Oliver Bierhoff, the team’s off-the-field manager.

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Löw and Bierhoff had the support of Frank-Walter Steinmaier, the president of the German federal republic. After the initial row Steinmaier had met Özil, listened sympathetically to his story, and issued – apparently to Grindel’s dismay – a joint statement with the player.

Failure in Russia provided the excuse for renewal of the criticisms, and not just by Grindel and the keyboard warriors of the social media. Uli Hoeness, the Bayern Munich president and a World Cup winner during his playing days, also piled in. “For me Mesut Özil has been a poor excuse for a footballer for years,” he said. “He should ask himself when he last won a tackle.” Nothing there about Thomas Müller, a Bayern player who also disappointed in Russia.

“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil said in a new statement on Sunday. “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.”

Ilkay Gundogan, Mesut Ozil and Cenk Tosun are pictured with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ilkay Gundogan, Mesut Ozil and Cenk Tosun are pictured with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photograph: Reuters

The affair is symptomatic of a world under strain. During the World Cup two Switzerland players of Kosovan descent, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, were fined by Fifa for making the sign of the Albanian double eagle after scoring against Serbia, Kosovo’s enemy in the war of 1998-99. Even the ultimate champions were forced to listen to complaints inside their own country that the World Cup had been won by an “African” team. When a website tweeted a list of France’s squad members with the name of each player accompanied by the flag representing his family’s origin, the full-back Benjamin Mendy answered by reposting the list with each flag replaced by the tricolore. “Fixed,” he added.

To Germany’s Islamophobes and extreme right, Turkish immigrants such as the Özils and the Gündoğans are guest workers who never did the decent thing and went back. Some in Britain feel the same way about our Afro-Caribbean and South Asian populations; they worked in our hospitals, on our buses and in our sweat-shops, and now it’s time for them to go “home”. And yet a squad containing 11 players of black or mixed ethnicity went to Russia and restored pride in the idea of an England team. For once, multiculturalism seemed to regain the upper hand. Sadly, in a polarising world, the suspicion must be that it’s all paper-thin. As France’s celebrations died down last week, L’Équipe’s cartoonist depicted a wife saying to her TV-watching husband, “I thought the World Cup of football was over,” and getting the reply: “Yes, but the World Cup of bullshit has just begun.”