“When we win, I am German. When we lose, I am an immigrant,” Mesut Özil tweeted on Sunday in his resignation from the German national team. The soccer player cited racism, lack of respect and incompetence as the reasons for having to leave.
German soccer fans’ heavy critique of Mr. Özil started after he had a photograph taken with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman president, along with another player in Germany’s national squad, Ilkay Gündogan, in May. Both players have Turkish roots. Through the World Cup, and even after, he faced harsh, unrelenting criticism, and now Mr. Özil’s decision presents an opportunity to discuss identity in Germany on a large scale, an issue that has long been ignored.
“I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” the 2014 world champion said of the photo taken in London at a conference before this year’s World Cup. Many had responded to the picture suggesting the soccer player’s loyalties do not lie with Germany, but with Turkey. After the World Cup, where Germany performed disappointingly, criticism came even from the highest levels of the soccer association, not only for his performance, but also his continued silence about the incident.
With a heavy heart, Mr. Özil resigned, saying that “he no longer felt comfortable playing for the team given the lack of respect and support from the DFB”, Germany’s national soccer association. “I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten,” he said.
He also broke his silence about the photograph, saying it had nothing to do with politics or Turkish elections held in June. “Like many people, I have ancestry that traces back to more than one country,” he said. The photo was not an endorsement of Mr. Erdogan but a sign of respect for his family’s roots, he explained.
The discussion of dual or multiple identities is only just starting in Germany, a country where racism is rife, not only in the most egregious examples, but among society as a whole. Mr. Özil also charged that media have double standards and constantly refer to him as German-Turkish, unlike his fellow team mates, even if they have roots in another country, such as Lukas Podolski, who was born in Poland. Mr. Özil also said Reinhard Grindel, who leads the DFB, prefers to press his own political views, rather than listening to Mr. Özil’s explanation of roots and ancestry.
On Monday, the response to Mr. Özil’s resignation was split. While some on Twitter called for Mr. Grindel to resign, Bild, Germany’s most popular daily newspaper, had a front-page headline that criticized Mr. Özil’s statement as “whining,” saying he did not deserve to play for Germany.
One of the most controversial reactions so far has come from Uli Hoeness, the president of FC Bayern Munich. “He’s been rubbish for years,” the boss of Germany’s top soccer club said. Many were quick to point out that Mr. Özil was named Germany’s national player of the year five times from 2011 to 2016 while Mr. Hoeness, a convicted tax evader, was hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground.
Others also said the explanation Mr. Özil gave for his photo with the Turkish president wasn’t convincing.
If Mr. Özil’s resignation only causes the fall of Mr. Grindel, it would be a tragic, lost opportunity. Given the lack of understanding of multiple identities, this is a chance for reflection in broader society. As Mr. Özil put it, “racism should never, ever be accepted.”
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com