Ozil’s international retirement over racism claims illustrates game can’t escape political football
Across world politics, top footballers are being sucked into tensions over immigration and the lurch to the Right, as Mesut Ozil's international retirement convulses supposedly liberal and stable Germany.
Ozil's impassioned denunciation of "racism" after Germany's group-stage exit at the World Cup can be seen as part of a wider conflict, with multicultural France lifting the trophy in Russia and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku claiming in 'The Players' Tribune': "When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren't going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent."
Russia's staging of the World Cup punctured the flimsy myth that sport and politics can be separated, with Mohamed Salah being steered into uncomfortable photo-ops with Chechen warlord and leader Ramzan Kadyrov a prime example of crossover.
The altercation around Ozil stems from a photograph he appeared in with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's authoritarian president, which Ozil claims has been used to "scapegoat" him for Germany's flop in Russia.
The row is turning nasty, with Uli Hoeness, who was jailed in 2014 for evading £25 million in taxes, rounding on Ozil. Hoeness told 'Bild': "I'm glad this nightmare is over. He has been playing crap for years. The last tackle he won was before the 2014 World Cup - and now he is hiding himself and poor performances behind this photo."
For Hoeness to know Ozil has been "crap for years" he must have had a TV in his prison cell. But Ozil (right), a World Cup winner with 92 caps, has supporters too. His Arsenal team-mate Hector Bellerin writes: "Surreal that someone who has done so much for his country on and off the pitch has been treated with such disrespect. Well done Mesut Ozil for standing up to this behaviour."
Ozil's statement is packed with interesting counter-arguments. On the Erdogan meeting at a "charitable and education event" he says: "We first met in 2010 after he and Angela Merkel watched the Germany vs Turkey match in Berlin. I'm aware that the picture of us caused a huge response in the German media, and whilst some people may accuse me of lying or being deceitful, the picture we took had no political intentions.
"Having respect for political office is a view that I'm sure both the Queen and Prime Minister Theresa May shared when they too hosted Erdogan in London."
This pointed reference to double-standards comes after Ozil nearly lost his place in Germany's World Cup squad for spending time with Erdogan.
"What I can't accept," he writes, "are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad. Certain German newspapers are using my background and photo with President Erdogan as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause."
Ozil also claimed he has been dumped by "charitable partners" and airbrushed out by some of Germany's sponsors.
This discursive and troubling rebuttal is aimed mainly at the German Football Association (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel, whom, Ozil claims, recalled him to Berlin after the Erdogan picture to clear the air but "was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion".
Ozil continued: "I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his (Grindel's) incompetence. I know he wanted me out of the team after the picture, but Joachim Low and Oliver Bierhoff stood up for me. In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose."
In response, a DFB statement read yesterday: "We emphatically reject the DFB being linked to racism. The DFB has been very involved in integration work in Germany for many years.
"It is regrettable Mesut Ozil felt that he had not been sufficiently protected as a target of racist slogans. The DFB stands for diversity, from the representatives at the top to the boundless, day-to-day dedication of people at the base."
Hostility to Ozil has emerged from multiple sources, some of it allegedly Islamophobic. He claims he has been called "goat-f****r" because of his Turkish background and told to "p*** off to Anatolia", a place in Turkey where many immigrants are based.
He writes: "Criticising and abusing me because of family ancestry is a disgraceful line to cross, and using discrimination as a tool for political propaganda is something that should immediately result in the resignation of those disrespectful individuals.
"These people have used my picture with President Erdogan as an opportunity to express their previously hidden racist tendencies, and this is dangerous for society."
With the far-right in France grumbling that 15 of the country's 23-man squad have African heritage (mainly from former French colonies), and Lukaku drawing attention to the prejudices he overcame in Belgium (England, too, has profound problems with warped nationalism and xenophobia), football is not showing the way to politics so much as crashing into its flames.
(©The Daily Telegraph, London)