One of the Team

Mesut Özil, playing for Arsenal. London, April 2015.

In a final “Fuck You” to the German press, soccer star Mesut Özil chose to publish his long-awaited statement on the controversy surrounding him in the form of a series of English-language social media posts spread out throughout last Sunday, ruining more than a few editors’ weekends.

The kicker, which dominated all headlines on Monday, came in Özil’s last post: his resignation from the German national team due to the racism he says he was subjected to by the media and a soccer federation unwilling to stand up for him.

“I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” he wrote. “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t. (…) Racism should never, ever be accepted.”

It is a depressing statement. Reading it one can’t help but feel that physical sense of dread, which has become so familiar, helplessly watching Europe’s regression to nativism. Somehow, the bad guys keep winning. Somehow, things keep getting uglier, the atmosphere poisoned more and more by distrust and contempt.

Of course, everyday life in Europe, strangely enough, mostly goes on as before – if you are a certified citizen of Fortress Europe, that is, and have all your papers in order. The simple fact that multicultural life in Europe is mainly unproblematic and successful, kind of nice even, is still there for anyone willing to acknowledge it.

But at the same time, in our debased populist public spheres, more and more people are collectively, loudly, and aggressively losing their minds. And they seem to be hellbent on tearing the whole increasingly-ramshackle liberal artifice in which Europe has been prospering in recent decades down. It’s frightening.

To anyone yet blissfully ignorant of the events which led to Özil’s resignation, here is a small run-down: In May of this year, two German soccer players, the aforementioned Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, posed for a photograph with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was at the time campaigning for re-election.

Since Özil and Gündogan were shortly set to play for Germany in the World Cup, and Erdoğan is an authoritarian leader of another country, this caused a little scandal. The right-wing tabloid Bild immediately used the incident to start a more general discussion about the “state of integration” of Turkish Muslims in Germany.

But while Gündogan, who apart from his charitable work has extensive investments in Turkey, and for that reason alone cannot afford to get on Erdoğan’s bad side, countered the criticism they received with a thoughtful statement, Özil, by all accounts not the brightest of the two, kept silent.

Then it began. Right-wing tabloids began to sling mud at Özil in particular. German fans booed them from the rafters. Ex-soccer-player and Bild columnist Lothar Matthäus suggested that Özil, who was born in Germany, “doesn’t feel comfortable wearing the German jersey”. People even began – again – to question why Özil would not join in singing the national anthem before games. And so on.

Things didn’t get better after Germany’s catastrophic performance at the World Cup. Amazingly, following the German defeat, the German Soccer Federation decided to rehash the whole Erdoğan-affair in order to cast blame for Germany’s loss on Özil. “Maybe it would have been better not to have taken Özil to the World Cup,” one of their officials said.

This seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. In his statement from Sunday, Özil wrote: “when high-ranking DFB officials treat me as they did, disrespect my Turkish roots and selfishly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough”.  

It was another win for the populists.

To truly understand how depressing this episode is, it is important to know where both Özil and Gündogan come from: their native city of Gelsenkirchen. Both players are a product of the post-war Turkish migration to the working-class coal and steel regions in West Germany, which are – not incidentally – home to some of the Bundesliga’s oldest and most successful soccer clubs.

The Ruhrgebiet, in its long history, powered two world wars. But it has, during the following economic recoveries, somehow, in the process turned into a multicultural melting pot. Now, as deindustrialization has been affecting the region, with infrastructure decaying, unemployment high, and social democracy in terminal decline, the region’s socio-economic problems provide an opening for the right-wing so text-book it even made it into The New York Times.

In places like this, soccer is one of the foundations of multiethnic society. Everybody plays and loves soccer. For Özil, the son of immigrants, it became a career, but for many, loving soccer is simply something they share with everybody around them.

Like anything in Germany, soccer has a truly dark racist history, from its important place in the Nazi state, when most soccer clubs were enthusiastically pro-Hitler and collaborated with Anti-Semitic policies to “Arianize” German sports, to the primitive racism virulent in many fan cultures for many post-war decades.

But soccer has reformed. Since not only the German national team but soccer’s fan base and a large part of amateur players increasingly have an immigrant background, anti-racism (cloaked in sporty language like “respect” and “fairness”) has become a central tenet of Bundesliga ideology. Soccer is something which many people have in common who usually would merely perceive their differences. Even some ethnic German demographics – let’s call them “beer-guzzling meatheads” – are integrated through soccer into something which is effortlessly multicultural and global in its orientation.

A few clubs in recent years had even begun to sponsor investigations into the anti-Semitic crimes they had been associated with in the past, after having repressed or even falsified this history for decades.

The effects of Bundesliga-antiracism aren’t trivial. While most in the media class, in particular, us tweedy lefty intellectuals, may not much care for it, soccer is probably the closest Germany or any other European nation has to an authentic, working-class mass culture, and it brings together people from all backgrounds. What happens in soccer truly reverberates in society. Millions of German men, at this moment, have an opinion about what Özil did.

Nobody knows what they all think, of course. But some are expressing their sadness over the fact that right-wing agitation has once more been dominating the agenda. The racist double standard at play – that a player with Turkish roots is being attacked for posing with an authoritarian leader who, in recent years, was one of the best clients of Germany’s small arms industry, and all this during a World Cup organized by the corrupt *FIFA* in *Putin’s Russia* before next World Cup in *Qatar* – is just too obvious to escape anyone with even an ounce of goodwill.

The bitter conclusion tweeted out by Özil, “I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose,” is just too striking to ignore. And yet, the fact alone that it has come to all this points to a general political crisis, a backsliding behind achievements once taken for granted.   

It seems too obvious to need saying, but none of this would have had become such a scandal if it weren’t for the current nativist backlash and a wider anxiety over immigration, diversity, and the definitions of citizenship in Europe.

It is notable, however, that the main driver of the anti-Özil populism wasn’t the fascist far-right. The AfD (Alternative for Germany) was peculiarly sidelined throughout the whole affair. Rather, it was the right-wing of mainstream conservatism, in particular, the influential tabloid Bild, which day after day, week after week, kept putting Özil’s betrayals and misdeeds on the agenda.

True to character, Angela Merkel on Monday let her spokespeople make a conciliatory statement expressing respect for Özil’s decision and affirming that migrants are welcome in Germany. At the same time, Horst Seehofer, her intra-party right-wing challenger, who as minister of the interior is also responsible for sports, refused to make a comment at all. And Bild did its best to continue its mean-spirited campaign, speaking of Özil’s “crazy attack on Germany”.

The Özil affair is thus also side effect of the unravelling of the unity of the German conservative party. Merkel and the majority of her party, the CDU, continue, often with gritted teeth, on a relatively liberal course to ensure both geopolitical and economical stability in spite of anti-EU populism, and social peace in the light of racist xenophobia.

But some in her party, feeling challenged by the new far-right, just can’t play that game anymore. And given the near-total triumph of anti-refugee politics all over Europe, they increasingly feel like they shouldn’t have to. Not by coincidence, Bild’s campaign against Özil had coincided with its support of Seehofer’s failed attempt to challenge Angela Merkel from the right over refugee policies.

In a way, these people represent their party more authentically, but of course also more foolishly, than the pragmatic centrist Merkel. At the end of the day, she remains the leader of a conservative party.

In a very revealing twist, Reinhard Grindel, the president of Germany’s soccer federation on which Özil pinned his most bitter accusations, is a former CDU politician himself, who, when he began serving in parliament in 2002, espoused hardline anti-immigrant and anti-Islam views. The same views, one might add, Merkel still ascribed to at the time, before her conversion to pragmatic liberalism when she became the actual ruler of a country of immigrants.

Germany’s non-fascist conservatives don’t oppose immigration in principle, as they also realise that Germany’s economic success is dependent on it. But they are concerned with policing immigrants’ behaviour, lest it might do damage to the political and social fabric, or challenge German cultural dominance in society.

The attacks on Özil resonated with so many sons and daughters of immigrants because they have experienced the same process he was subjected to themselves: the constant, endless pressure which German anxiety and suspicions can exert on people who are, or look, ‘foreign’.

No matter how successful, how nice, how non-confrontational you may present yourself, hell, no matter how many fucking World Cups you may have won for this country, many will still only accept you on eternal probation. If you make a mistake, if you give them a reason, you’ll be a foreigner again.

This has been the consistently repeated message of statements by writers of immigrant background in the wake of the affair.

It sounds exhausting. And it is one reason why in particular second and third generation immigrants so often harbour feelings of disappointment or resentment towards German society, even if objectively or materially they may have benefitted from living in it greatly.

As Hasan Gökkaya wrote for the liberal ZEIT:

“Özil’s text also will find support among those parts of the German-Turkish community which isn’t pro-Erdoğan. Because the anger directed at the Turkish president also attracts the mob – people who always had a problem with Turks and were only looking for an outlet for their aggression. I don’t just mean the people who called Özil a ‘goatfucker’ or ‘Turkish pig.’ I mean those who for weeks now have been braying about the ‘treason of Özil’, while their German-Turkish colleagues at work, or eating in the canteen, or outside had to sit and listen quietly. While they were giving once more the feeling: that they are strangers in their own country.”

The recent displays of allegiance by a large minority of Turks in Germany to Erdoğan’s anti-Western populism only added fire to this dynamic. Erdoğan’s campaigning directed at Turks in Germany, the general resurgence of Turkish nationalism (which, if these dumb young Turks from Berlin are anything to go by, used to look at Özil as a traitor for playing for Germany), the use of German mosques for Turkish state-propaganda – all of this, rather than any outrage over Erdoğan’s policies in Turkey, were the real reasons that Özil’s and Gündogan’s photo with the Turkish president provoked such anger and concern in Germany.

‘What if some Turks in Germany will always be more loyal to Turkish nationalism than to German democracy?’ many asked themselves after 422,000 people in Germany had cast their vote for Erdogan in the last election. (Around 1.4 Million Turks in Germany were eligible to vote).

It isn’t even that unreasonable a question. The problem, however, is that, consistent with the debased discourse of our times, this question was usually posed not in political terms, as a question about allegiance to universal democratic values, but rather cloaked in the poisonous terminology of identity, loyalty, and ethnicity: ‘Are the Turks with us, or are they against us?’

Özil’s statement, ironically, itself reproduces the same dysfunctional identitarian ways of thinking. According to Özil, he had to show respect to the Turkish president, not because of his political orientation, but simply because Erdoğan represented the office of the leader of Turkey, and thus of the homeland of his family. He writes, “My mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. … the truth is that not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors ….“

Özil, or rather the people who have penned his statement, may not have intended this (though they just as well might have), but they follow a pattern established by many Erdoğan-loyalists in Germany who opportunistically use the language of liberalism and even anti-racism to defame critics of the AKP or the Turkish religious institutions as racists, Islamophobes or simply ‘anti-Turkish.’ That these reactionaries may be speaking the truth about German society’s racism in a general sense makes their rhetorical manoeuvres only all the more insidious.

In a truly interesting confluence, Özil’s statement may have worked to ensure support both by liberal opinion in Germany as well as by the pro-Erdoğan populist demographics in Turkey. That Turks must no longer accept disrespect from the hostile and arrogant West is, after all, one of Erdoğan’s core winning messages.

And yes: The Turkish government immediately seized on the opportunity Özil had provided them with. “We support with our full heart the honourable position which our Brother Mesut Özil has taken,” the Turkish sports minister, Mehmet, Kaspoglu, tweeted out. Justice minister Abdulhamit Gül went the whole way, calling Özil’s statement “a wonderful goal against the virus of fascism.” And the speaker of the president currently crushing Kurdish life with military violence commented via twitter: “What a sad affair for those, claiming to be tolerant and multicultural.”

What’s missing in all this confused and stupid noise is, of course, any way of criticising the decision by a cowardly and conformist millionaire like Mesut Özil to pose for a photo with the gravedigger of Turkish democracy and killer of Kurds, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan –  without also feeding into the racist narratives of German nativism.

That’s where we are.

Photograph courtesy of Ronnie McDonald. Published under a Creative Commons license.