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Soccer star's resignation drives identity debate in Germany

Jul. 27, 2018
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Soccer player Mesut Ozil resigned from the German national team last week, citing “racism” and “disrespect” he was facing as motivation. The German-born grandchild of Turkish immigrants, Ozil regularly plays for Arsenal. He was a star on Germany’s World Cup-winning 2014 national team. 

In a trilogy of statements posted to his Twitter account, Ozil expresses his frustration with his treatment by German media, fans, and the national team. The 29-year-old ignited international conversation in May, when he and a teammate with Turkish ancestry took a photo with controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over 130,000 people have been fired from positions in the military, the police force, civil service, and academia in a political silencing effort that Turks have dubbed “the purge.” Relationships between Germany and Turkey have also gotten rockier as of late, since the influx of refugees into Germany originates at the Turkish border. For many Germans, the photo stood as an endorsement of Erdogan’s politics, however unintentional on the part of Ozil. As German novelist Gila Lustiger explained to the Atlantic, “Imagine if the most important baseball player in the worst period of Castro took a picture with Castro. What would they say?”

For Ozil, the picture is an expression of pride in his Turkish heritage, which is ensnared in a constant battle to hold onto his roots and be legitimized as a full-bred German. He writes that “not the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors,” and that German fans and press have seemed to blame that heritage for Germany’s loss in the early rounds of this year’s World Cup. He critiques the enormous amount of attention his meeting with Erdogan has received, as former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus’ meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin—a similarly controversial figure—has gotten very little press. He ponders why he gets constantly labelled “German-Turkish,” as friends of his are never identified as “German-Polish.”

What Mesut Ozil represents in his resignation announcement is a story echoed by many refugees in a homogenized and closed-minded Europe. According to Human Rights Watch, 143 attacks on asylum shelters and 642 attacks on individual refugees were reported from Germany in the first half of 2017. As recently as June 1, the Danish parliament upheld a ban on garments covering the face, which criminalizes religious garments such as the niqab and burqa. Last week, Daily Show host Trevor Noah got in hot water with the French Ambassador over a joke that “Africa won the World Cup” (an allusion to the fact that 80% of the French international soccer team was of African descent). 

For the descendants of European immigrants, cultural roots are in constant conflict with assimilation in their homelands. As Ozil himself put it, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”