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Footballer Ozil’s resignation sparks shock in Germany, schadenfreude in Turkey

© Turkish presidential press service / AFP | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) posing for a photo with German footballer of Turkish origin Mesut Ozil (L) in London in May 2018.

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2018-07-24

German footballer Mesut Ozil’s shock resignation from the national team has sparked a wave of soul-searching over racism in Germany and a sense of schadenfreude in Turkey, which could be a win for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Barely a month after Germany’s shock 2018 World Cup elimination, the bloodletting began over the weekend when Mesut Ozil announced he was quitting the national team.

In a three-part Twitter post, the star German midfielder said he was resigning due to the “racism and disrespect” he faced over his Turkish roots. “I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level [sic] whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” said Ozil.

The statement marked Ozil’s first public comment about a controversial meeting and photo-op with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the lead-up to the June 24 Turkish elections. Shortly after the scandal erupted, Ilkay Gundogan -- another German footballer of Turkish origin who was photographed with Erdogan -- asserted that the meeting “was never intended as a political statement” and that he “honoured German values 100 percent”.

Ozil however did not comment on the incident – until Sunday night, when he described, in detail, the backlash he faced following the Erdogan meeting. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose," said the 29-year-old midfielder who plays for the English club, Arsenal.

Identity politics dog winners and losers

Dual identity debates have shot into the spotlight in the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup regardless of whether footballers belonged to the winning or losing side.

Last week, World Cup winners France were under scrutiny following a media dustup between comedian Trevor Noah and French Ambassador to the US Gérard Araud, when the latter castigated the Daily Show host for joking that “Africa won the World Cup”. Referring to the diversity of the French team, Araud noted that, “the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France,” mainly to immigrant parents of African roots. “They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens.”

Noah, a US resident of South African origin, waded into the old clash between US-style identity politics and the French disquiet over communautarisme. “When they are unemployed, when they may commit a crime… it’s the African immigrants,” he joked. “When their children go on to provide a World Cup victory for France, we should only refer to them as French.”

Like the Noah-French ambassador spat, the Ozil resignation, not surprisingly, sparked off a Twitter storm, with the hashtags, #StandWithOzil and #SayNoToRacism, making the rounds.

Barely 24 hours later, politicians across the ideological spectrum had reacted to the news, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose spokeswoman said the German leader valued Ozil as a “great footballer” and asserted that Germany was a “cosmopolitan country” where people of all backgrounds were welcome.

Exploiting the beautiful game

The politicisation of football has been a post-war phenomenon that has adapted to the times, with politicians exploiting the game for propaganda, fans unleashing their nationalistic fury in stadiums, and leaders coopting the “beautiful game” as a pacification tool. Merkel herself came under fire in 2010, when the German football association (DFB) complained about her unscheduled locker room visit following a German victory over Turkey.

In Turkey though, football fans find it much harder to publicly decry Erdogan’s exploitation of the game – but not from lack of trying.

Following a 2011 match by Galatasaray -- one of three major Turkish football clubs -- when Erdogan was booed and jeered by spectators, Turkish authorities have cracked down on anti-government demonstrations in stadiums.

In 2013, following the Gezi Park demonstrations, thousands of football fans were arrested and a group of 35 supporters of Besiktas -- another major Turkish football club -- were charged with attempting a military coup. A controversial electronic identity card system to help monitor chanting and banners in stadiums has since been introduced.

While social media sites on Monday were awash with Turkish fans denouncing Germany’s alleged racism and Islamophobia, the reaction in Turkey was divided along political lines, according to Patrick Keddie, an Istanbul-based journalist and author of 'The Passion: Football and the Storm of Modern Turkey'.

“The debate has polarised people depending on their political position. Anti-Erdogan supporters are angry with Ozil’s meeting with the Turkish president, they say he’s an adult, he made a political choice and it would inevitably spark criticism,” said Keddie. “For Erdogan supporters, it’s an endorsement of their argument that Europeans are not treating Turkish people and people of Turkish origin fairly.”

‘Most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism’

Erdogan has been on a vote-wooing collision course with Europe even as his government continues to pursue ascension to the EU.

While relations between Ankara and Europe have been declining since a 2016 failed military coup sparked a series of opposition crackdowns and power grabs by Erdogan, they tend to hit all-time lows in the run-up to Turkish polls.

Home to a three-million strong Turkish community, many of whom vote in elections back home, Germany is particularly vulnerable to campaign season acrimony. In the lead-up to last year’s constitutional referendum and the 2018 elections, Germany and the Netherlands banned Turkish politicians from holding campaign events.

When Ozil and Gundogan -- along with another German player of Turkish origin – posed for a picture with the Turkish leader at a London hotel just weeks before the critical June 24 presidential vote, the footballers were widely slammed by the British press for handing Erdogan a PR coup.

With his high-profile resignation, Ozil appears to have wittingly or unwittingly handed Erdogan yet another publicity victory.

The German midfielder’s resignation was hailed by Erdogan's government, which has championed a campaign against what Ankara sees as growing Islamophobia in Europe.

"I congratulate Mesut Ozil who by leaving the national team has scored the most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism," Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul wrote on Twitter.

‘Imam Beckenbauer’ plays football and politics

A former football player, Erdogan has long used the game as a political tool. As a semi-professional player, Erdogan was nicknamed “Imam Beckenbauer,” a reference both to his piety and his supposed skills, which his supporters liken to the German football icon, Franz Beckenbauer.

Since his AK Party came to power, Erdogan has effectively harnessed the power of the sport in a football-mad country where passions run high on and off the pitch, according to Keddie.

Over the past few years, the Turkish president has inaugurated a slew of stadiums, including one that is named after him in Kasimpasa, the hardscrabble Istanbul neighbourhood of his childhood.

Following the 2011 incident, when Erdogan was booed at the Galatasaray stadium though, the Turkish leader has avoided games by the top three football clubs. Fearing a repeat of that incident, Erdogan now frequents a new stadium, built in 2014 in the AK Party stronghold Istanbul district of Başakşehir.

Despite the increased focus on the game, Turkey has failed to qualify for the World Cup since the AK Party came to power, a situation experts such as Keddie attribute to the rampant cronyism and corruption in Turkish football.

The country’s poor showing on the world’s football stage however does not generate much coverage on Turkish media, according to Keddie. “We didn’t see much coverage of Turkey not making it into the World Cup. There’s a reluctance to cover it in the Turkish press since 90 percent of the media supports the government and there’s no real appetite to look into the political problems plaguing the game,” he explained.

German football association chief faces heat

Ozil’s shock resignation however has united Turks inside Turkey and in the diaspora across Europe.

"He [Ozil] is from Turkey," a Berlin-based pensioner told the AFP. Besides, he added, "Erdogan didn't win through weapons, he was elected."

In his four-page missive, written in English and posted on Twitter, Ozil detailed the hate speech and abuse he had been subjected to since the Erdogan meeting, including taunts to “piss off to Anatolia,” by prominent German personalities. The biggest source of his ire however appeared to be Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association (DFB) and a former parliamentarian from Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party.

While the DFB on Monday vehemently rejected Ozil's claims, saying the organisation "stands for diversity", a number of German politicians and commentators believe Grindel should resign following the revelations.

"It will be very hard for Grindel after this," Cem Ozdemir, former head of the Greens party and the most prominent politician of Turkish origin, told Deutschlandfunk radio. "He doesn't reflect the breadth of football in Germany and so it will be hard for German Turks, or indeed German Croats, to feel that the DFB is theirs."

The heated debate following the resignation however has alarmed many German officials, with former DFB chief Theo Zwanziger warning it dealt a "serious blow to the integration efforts in our country that goes beyond football".

In its editorial though, the Tagesspiegel daily, said the incident marked a "watershed for sports, politics and society" with far-reaching consequences. "Ultimately, Ozil did not fall because of Grindel but because of a heated, populist mood in Germany," said the paper’s editorial board, calling for action to prevent others with immigrant backgrounds from feeling excluded.

Date created : 2018-07-23

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