In the past decade, Germany’s traditional all-white national football team underwent a sea change, with at least four prominent players of African or Turkish descent. But this symbol of a new, multi-cultural Germany has now been completely shattered.
On Sunday, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil announced he was leaving the national team over the “feeling of racism and disrespect” towards himself, causing a shockwave and sparking vivid political debates in the country.
The 29-year-old made his announcement via three lengthy and strongly-worded statements on Twitter, in which he singled out German Football Association (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel. Özil said he would “no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly”.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten,” he wrote.
Germany crashed out in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia — the national team’s worst performance in decades. The DFB’s Grindel put the blame on Özil, who had met Turkish President Erdogan shortly before the start of the World Cup, a move which proved largely controversial in Germany.
Özil played in total 92 matches for Germany, scored 23 goals, and registered 40 assists – and also proved to know how to put the finger where it really hurts: dual citizenship.
German nationality law is based on a mixture of the principles of jus sanguinis and jus soli, a compromise introduced at the turn of this century in a bid for Germany to bring significant reforms to a piece of legislation that dated back to 1913.
Concretely, the current legislation means that one acquires German citizenship if a parent is a German citizen, irrespective of place of birth, or by birth in Germany to parents with foreign nationality if certain requirements are fulfilled.
The reform to the nationality law was passed by the Bundestag (the German parliament) in 1999, and came into force on 1 January 2000, while the government ratified the European Convention on Nationality that took effect in Germany in September 2005.
From 2002 to 2016, DFB president Grindel was a member of the German parliament for the conservative CDU.
“To you, Reinhard Grindel, I am disappointed but not surprised by your actions,” Mesut Özil continued.
“In 2004, whilst you were a German member of Parliament, you claimed that ‘multiculturalism is, in reality, a myth [and] a lifelong lie.’ You voted against legislation for dual nationalities and punishments for bribery, and you also said that Islamic culture has become too ingrained in many German cities.”
These words resonate strongly in Germany, where the Turkish community has about three million people, and in which Erdogan has many supporters. In the Turkish presidential election on June 24, about 65% of Turkish voters settled in Germany voted for the AKP candidate, twelve points higher than his total score.
It explains why the reactions have been very diverse in the country since Sunday.
Some have chosen to criticise Özil, like tabloid Bild, which dubbed his explanations “jeremiads.” For the most widely read newspaper in Germany, the player is indefensible on two accounts, first because of his support for Erdogan, a “despot” who seeks to impose an “Islamic dictatorship” in Turkey, and then because of his “lousy” game at the last World Cup.
But the most damning charge came from Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern Munich.
“For me […], he did not help the Germany team at all. […] Nobody questioned him athletically. Now he can hide behind Erdogan’s story. He played like shit for years, and now it’s the fault of Reinhard Grindel or Oliver Bierhoff [the general manager of the German team]. ”
On the other hand, several newspapers and politicians warned that Özil’s explanations should not be taken lightly, though they too distanced themselves from his surprise decision.
“This is a warning signal to be taken seriously when a great German football player like Mesut Özil no longer feels represented in his country because of racism,” said Social Democrat Justice Minister Katarina Barley.
“It’s tragic if young German-Turkish citizens now feel that they do not belong in the national team. Success exists only in diversity, not in uniqueness. This is how we became world champions in 2014 and how France has become this year,” said Cem Özdemir, president of the German Green party in the Bundestag.
Barley is a British-born German politician, Özdemir, of Turkish descent, was born in a small town in southern Germany and acquired the German nationality in 1983. Coincidence?
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