The past couple of weeks have given me time to reflect, and time to think over the events of the last few months. Consequently, I want to share my thoughts and feelings about what has happened. pic.twitter.com/WpWrlHxx74— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
A German soccer player is citing racism from fans of the sport in his home country for his decision to resign from the national team.
Mesut Özil, a midfielder who played in the 2018 World Cup (and was also a part of Germany’s 2014 World Cup Championship team), said in a set of lengthy Twitter posts that backlash resulting from him posing in a picture with Turkish President Recep Erdogan made it impossible for him to continue playing for the national team. Özil had posed with the controversial leader during a charity event in London.
It wasn’t just fans who were unhappy with the photo — German Football Association (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel also expressed his dismay with the picture.
“[F]ootball and the DFB stand for values that Mr. Erdogan does not respect,” Grindel said. “That's why it's not acceptable that our national team players are exploited for his election campaign.”
II / III pic.twitter.com/Jwqv76jkmd— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
Özil, who was born in Germany and is of Turkish descent (his grandparents emigrated to Germany years ago), defended standing beside Erdogan.
“For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn't about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family's country,” he said. “Whether it had been the Turkish or the German president, my actions would’ve been no different.”
The statements from DFB officials were bad enough. But after they were made, Özil said he was subjected to hate mail and threats. He realized he could no longer play for the team with Grindel in charge.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he poignantly said in his statement.
III / III pic.twitter.com/c8aTzYOhWU— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
The DFB hit back, defending their critique of the player and arguing that they have worked hard to integrate “tens of thousands” of immigrants into the sport.
On the one hand, Erdogan is a controversial figure, one whose leadership is authoritarian in nature, and Özil appearing beside him in a photograph may have been a mistake on the player’s part. But the criticism he received for doing so, focusing on his heritage rather than his decision, is a far cry from being fair.
Özil’s decision to focus on playing club ball, and to retire from representing his nation in international matches, was likely a difficult one for him to make. But sometimes, to make a grander political point, hard choices like these must be made.