How Mesut Özil became a symbol for Western Europe’s problem with immigration

The midfielder announced his retirement from international football after claiming to experience “racism and disrespect”.

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Mesut Özil’s international football career is surely one that most players would feel envious of: 92 senior caps, 23 senior goals and a World Cup winner’s medal before the age of 30 comprise a calling card that only an elite few across the sport can match. But as the Arsenal midfielder, who is of Turkish descent, walks away from the Germany team, citing “racism and disrespect” from German fans and the German football association (DFB) as the main factor in his decision, those glittering achievements lose a lot of their shine. What is the point in being one of his country’s best players, if some people don’t consider Germany to even be his country in the first place?

As it does in several countries in Western Europe, immigration represents one of Germany’s most debated political issues, with those on the right of the country’s politics favouring more stringent border controls. Germany is home to about three million people of Turkish descent, many of whom, like Özil, are practising Muslims. And a by-product of the unfair and inaccurate conflation of Islam to global terrorism is a strained life experience for many Turkish immigrants, with their sense of identity scrutinised on some constantly shifting scales as to what counts as integration.

While Özil said in a statement explaining his international retirement that he felt players with similar backgrounds to him were often blamed for poor results – “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose” – it is clear that his decision to take photographs with the controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May has not helped help matters.

Özil, Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gündoğan – another German international footballer with Turkish heritage – and Everton’s Turkish striker Cenk Tosun, were pictured with the leader of the AK Party, during a meeting at London’s Four Seasons Hotel. At the time, the DFB and numerous German politicians criticised Özil and Gündoğan, questioning their loyalty to Western democratic values, not least because Erdoğan, an autocrat, is known to put dissenting journalists in prison.

When Germany, defending their World Cup title from four years previously, failed to progress beyond the group stage at this summer’s tournament in Russia, those images with Erdoğan were simply used as another rod with which to strike Özil’s back by some disgruntled figures at the DFB, ex-Germany internationals, the German press, and by some disparaging users on social media.

Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern Munich and a World Cup winner with Germany during his own playing days, said: “For me, Mesut Özil has been a poor excuse for a footballer for years.” Considering that Özil is a player who has been short-listed for Fifa’s Ballon d’Or award four times, who has won domestic trophies in Germany, Spain and England, and who holds the record for the fewest games required to rack up 50 Premier League assists, this appears a harsh assessment.

Nevertheless, while the criticism directed against Özil after the World Cup has been disproportionate – other high-profile players such as Bayern forward Thomas Müller did not perform to their full potential in Russia either – it is hard to argue that posing for photos with Erdoğan was a good idea.

But that hasn’t stopped Özil himself from trying. He said that “not meeting the president would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors”. Özil added: “For me, it didn’t matter who was president, it mattered that it was the president [of Turkey].” And although this doesn’t change Erdoğan’s frightening record in government, it goes some way towards illustrating the complexities of identity politics, in that there is a fine line between integration and assimilation. As the former Real Madrid playmaker also said: “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.”

In 2016, an anthology of essays titled The Good Immigrant collated the thoughts of 21 black, Asian and ethnic minority writers on their experiences of living in a white majority community in the United Kingdom. The criteria for a “good” immigrant, the essays suggested, included a willingness to adopt the cultural status quo and an addition of economic or social value to their new home nation, all the while being “grateful” for being taken in or afforded opportunities.

But this feeling of gratitude, according to the book’s final article, “The Ungrateful Nation” by poet and author Musa Okwonga, is not always mutual. Immigrants can satisfy all of the “good” criteria they want, Okwonga wrote, yet see those criteria quickly changed or simply ignored to suit a particular narrative. Put simply: immigrants are handy scapegoats for anything that goes wrong.

Technically though, Mesut Özil isn’t even an immigrant. He was born in Gelsenkirchen, yet there are people within the DFB and the German football fan base, who will not view him as German because of his Turkish heritage and Muslim faith. This is despite the fact that Özil helped Germany to win the World Cup in 2014, and his Turkish grandfather, who came to Gelsenkirchen in the 1970s, played a crucial role as a gastarbeiter in plugging the country’s post-war industrial labour shortage.

From Özil’s decision to quit the Germany side, then, we can draw three important lessons. The first is that while immigration has undoubtedly enhanced European selection pools – 14 players in France’s World Cup-winning squad this summer were of African descent – football fans at large are still in dire need of some perspective. The second is that immigration does not mean surrendering one aspect of an identity completely in favour of another. And the third lesson, just as Germany is a socially and economically richer country for the contribution of its immigrants, is that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Ultimately, if Özil’s photos with Erdoğan were a mistake – and they were – then so, too, is the witch hunt that has followed. Rather than attempting any empathy around cultural grey areas – it is possible to be proud of Turkey if not its politics – in making Özil feel “unwelcome”, as he put it, German football has only succeeded in shooting itself in the foot. Germany will no longer benefit from the skills of a midfield metronome and one of the world’s best players no longer wants to represent the country he grew up in. What a shame.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.