So much ink has been spilled over the Mesut Özil saga, especially after Özil’s statements Part I, Part II, and Part III dropped on July 22nd. The majority of said ink has drenched pages discussing Part II and Part III and justifiably so: they are a stunning denunciation of media, sponsors, politicians, and the German football federation (DFB) for their complicity in the racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that has led Özil to conclude he can no longer represent Germany at the international level.
But there was also Part I, which saw Özil staunchly defending his meeting and photograph with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May. Considering that incident kick-started the current firestorm, Özil’s defensive position is lamentable. His justification is iffy at best, as everyone left-of-center will be quick to point out. His understanding of politics is suspect. His worldview, naive. And why didn’t he say anything before now? We shake our heads in sadness, in rueful righteous disappointment.
I’m not here to defend Mesut Özil’s decision to meet with a murderous autocrat who jails journalists and labels dissenters “terrorists.” I’m not here to defend Mesut Özil’s acquiescence in being used as propaganda for said autocrat’s reelection campaign. I’m not here to defend Mesut Özil’s refusal to apologize in the face of valid criticisms. I can’t.
But I can understand where he’s coming from. What happened on July 22nd did not happen in a vacuum; it was a culmination of events that began long before the Erdoğan photograph in May. Merit, difference, otherness—these questions have dogged Mesut Özil throughout his life, and they have become inextricably linked with questions about his football and his very identity.
Mesut vs. the world
Özil was born in Gelsenkirchen, the grandson of migrant workers who came to Germany in the 1960s. Growing up in a poor immigrant neighborhood, he spoke Turkish at home and learned German in primary school. He recalls with frustration the countless times he’s been asked whether he is Turkish or German; he is both.
As a pre-teen, Özil tried out four times for the Schalke 04 youth team. He was rejected four times. In his autobiography, Özil recalls asking his father what he’d done wrong at the trials. His father told him, “Nothing, my son. You can’t do anything about the name you got from your mother and me.”
It was a lesson Özil learned at a young age: that you can be exceptional at something and still not considered good enough.
In 2006, Özil chose to represent Germany at the international level. With dual-citizenship not an option at the time, he relinquished his Turkish passport to obtain a German one. His decision was met with reproach from Turkey’s consulate, football federation, newspapers, fans, and players. Incendiary comments calling him a traitor forced Özil’s website to shut down for several days. A director of the Turkish football federation suggested Özil had misled them. As late as 2010, Hamit Altintop accused Özil of turning his back on “his own.” When Germany played Turkey during Euro 2012 qualifiers, the reaction from the Turkish fans was so hostile that Özil asked to sit out the fixture in Istanbul.
Meanwhile in Germany, Özil’s stellar performance at the 2010 World Cup had made him a poster boy for multiculturalism. Özil was presented with a Bambi award for successful integration into German society. Following Germany’s 3-0 win over Turkey in the Euro 2012 qualifier, Angela Merkel orchestrated a post-match photo op with Özil—a week after she sparked controversy for saying the project to build a multicultural Germany had failed. (Incidentally, this was the first time Özil met Erdoğan, who had been in Berlin and watched the match with Merkel.)
Yet at the same time, Özil was dealing with hostility from certain quarters in Germany. The ultranationalist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) called Özil a “plastic German” after South Africa. During Euro 2012, Özil’s father took legal action against a Twitter smear campaign claiming that Mesut Özil is not actually German. In response, the conservative Junge Freiheit alleged that Özil was only German on a technicality; he was ethnically alien to the German people.
Throughout the years, the fact that Özil (like several of his teammates) doesn’t sing the national anthem before matches drew ire from far-right politicians, Sport Bild, and former Germany international Stefan Effenberg. During Euro 2016, politicians of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) questioned Özil’s loyalty to German democratic values and whether he was a good role model for children, due to his Muslim faith. And it was on the basis of “values” that Effenberg called for Özil and Gündogan to be thrown out of the World Cup squad in the aftermath of the Erdoğan photo controversy.
Which brings us to this summer’s blockbuster brouhaha.
With Germany taking a dim view of Erdoğan’s political and human rights record, Özil and Gündogan drew criticism for meeting with the Turkish President. But the criticism didn’t stop there: it ran seamlessly into accusations that the photo threw the players’ “Germanness” into question. DFB President Reinhard Grindel rebuked the pair for allowing themselves to be “misused as part of an election campaign maneuver,” suggesting that the photograph was a blow against integration efforts in Germany. His birthplace distrusted him for having foreign blood, and his ancestral home despised him for having the gall to feel like he also belonged to a different country.
His birthplace distrusted him for having foreign blood, and his ancestral home despised him for having the gall to feel like he also belonged to a different country.
Gündogan took to Instagram and TV to affirm his commitment to Germany and “German values.” German national team coach Joachim Löw and general manager Oliver Bierhoff defended the players and their commitment to said values. The DFB declared the situation dealt with, and called for unity as the team headed to Russia. But it did no good: during the pre-World Cup friendly against Saudi Arabia, Gündogan was booed every time he touched the ball and, according to reports, he wept in the locker room after the match.
Then came Özil’s turn: the AfD blamed the Erdoğan controversy for Germany’s loss to Mexico at the World Cup, and demanded Özil be dropped from the squad. After the second match against Sweden, a German fan shouted at Özil, “Piss off, you Turkish pig.” Following Germany’s historic group stage exit, Bierhoff walked back his previous support for Özil and said perhaps the midfielder should have been excluded from the squad. DFB president Reinhard Grindel didn’t go quite as far, but made pointed remarks that Özil owed the fans some answers.
Never mind that Özil was, objectively, one of Germany’s better players of the tournament. He was made the scapegoat.
It must have been an echo of Özil’s experience with the Schalke youth team: you can be exceptional and do everything right, but as long as you are deemed “different,” your value and your place will always be up for debate. His birthplace distrusted him for having foreign blood, and his ancestral home despised him for having the gall to feel like he also belonged to a different country. His friends today could be his enemies tomorrow. He couldn’t win.
Throughout the summer—through accusations from the political left, right, and center; through inconsistent positions from his federation president and team manager—Özil said nothing. He’s never been talkative, and has admitted that he doesn’t enjoy speaking up and being the center of attention. After Germany’s World Cup exit, he posted a tweet with the hashtag #SayNoToRacism. And that was it. He went on vacation with his fiancee. His social media updated with promotional material. People called for answers. Nearly a month went by.
Then on July 22nd, Özil finally broke his silence.
“I have two hearts,” Mesut Özil wrote in Part I of his statement, “one German and one Turkish.” Emphasizing his mother’s teachings that he should never lose sight of his heritage, Özil defended his meeting and photo with Erdoğan: “For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.”
Not only did Özil not apologize—he doubled down. The defensiveness is astounding. Given the content of the rest of his statement, Özil (or at least the team behind him) appear not unaware of tetchy political situations. Yet he (and they) walked right into the middle of the biggest one with Erdoğan.
And they’re not sorry about it at all.
He’s been criticized for being too Turkish, and not Turkish enough; no matter what he does, it’s somehow never enough.
It could well be that Özil did not feel he was in a position to refuse Erdoğan’s initial offer, or to roll back what at this point is a nearly decade-long friendship with the Turkish president. Özil had met and been photographed with Erdoğan on numerous occasions before May 2018. And we have numerous examples of how troublesome and outright dangerous it can be to oppose Erdoğan, even or especially for famous athletes. Özil has family in Turkey. It’s something to consider.
But this story should also be considered:
In 2007, Özil was a young Bundesliga talent in open dispute with Schalke management over whether he or the newly-signed Ivan Rakitić would wear the number 10. To Özil, the number represented the management’s trust in him. After all, Mirko Slomka and Andreas Müller had promised Özil that he would grow into the playmaker role following the departure of the former number 10, and on this promise a handshake agreement had been reached for his contract renewal.
And then Schalke signed Rakitić without Özil’s knowledge. The secrecy of the affair made Özil doubt his future in the team, and he held off on officially signing his new contract. Schalke felt he’d turned down a generous offer in bad faith. In January 2008, Müller declared that Özil would never again play for or train with Schalke. The papers ran reports that Özil was dragging out his contract negotiations to squeeze the club for money. Slomka publicly stated that Özil could rejoin training if he just apologized.
Schalke were likely trying to send a message to other players thinking of prolonging their contract negotiations. They may have thought it would be difficult for a 19-year-old kid to leave his hometown and club. They were half right: Özil was reluctant to leave Gelsenkirchen. He wanted a support system of friends and people he could rely on. For that very reason, Özil had no intention of crawling back to Schalke. His trust in Slomka and Müller was irrevocably broken: he’d been humiliated by the club, which had not only betrayed him but put the blame squarely on his shoulders.
On January 31st, 2008, Özil left this childhood club for Werder Bremen, where he knew he had the coach and director’s unequivocal support. He took from this entire episode an important lesson: you need allies, within a team and within a club, because football is not just about technical ability. The politics matter, and politics can turn.
The Schalke spat is a small-scale version of the Erdoğan fracas and the DFB’s resultant finger-pointing. Özil felt betrayed, backed into a corner; he chose to leave because he cannot operate under those conditions. It is well-known that Özil craves security, demands the trust and support of people around him. It’s a theme that has been reiterated throughout his career: in his move to Werder, in his transfer to Arsenal, and in his resignation from the German national team.
Respect features heavily in Özil’s worldview. Perhaps because, time and again, he has been questioned and shamed by those around him—for reasons that he finds opaque at best, hateful at worst. Those reasons have too often centered on his heritage.
This liminal experience—child of both worlds, belonging to none—will be familiar to many immigrants. Pile on top of that the intense pressure and scrutiny that comes with being one of Germany’s most successful athletes, and you have something approaching the precarious pressure cooker situation that Özil has been living in for the last decade. He’s been criticized for being too Turkish, and not Turkish enough; no matter what he does, it’s somehow never enough. The question of Turkey, and by extension Erdoğan, is so tied up in years of this lived experience that it’s likely impossible for Özil to hear any criticism of Erdoğan, now, without hearing a very personal attack against his own identity.
In this light, Özil’s refusal to apologize for meeting with Erdoğan is not just a stubborn stance; it is existential self-defense. He will not apologize for meeting with Erdoğan, because he will not apologize for who he is.