Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 13: Can something good come from the Mesut Özil affair for German football and society?

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 13: Can something good come from the Mesut Özil affair for German football and society?

After winning the World Cup in 2014, Germany were not able to defend their title in Russia this year. Partly, this was the fault of the coach, Joachim Löw, but many factors were beyond his control. One of them was the occasion where Mesut Özil and the Turkish president Recep Erdogan met in London in May. Part 13 of our 18 for 18 series comes courtesy of CHRISTOPH WAGNER.

To say the Mesut Özil/Ilkay Gundogan affair is just about a photo opportunity is severely understating the significance of what happened in the aftermath of that shoot in May in London. It resonates well beyond the football pitch and touches upon one of the most discussed topics in recent times: migration and integration. It highlights that Germany – as much as it is portrayed and portrays itself as an open minded and open society – has still some way to go.

The history

The two countries, Turkey and Germany, have a long historical relationship dating back to the times of the Great War, when both Empires – the German and the Ottoman – fought together against the Entente Cordiale. Both were on the losing side. After another disastrous military conflict between 1939 and 1945, Germany relied heavily on migrant labourers from Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey to fill the gaps in its workforce. These so called Gastarbeiters (guest workers) were only meant to stay for a short while to help the Germans rebuild the country. As so often happens, plans rarely work out and many of those people from southern and south-eastern Europe stayed in Germany becoming part of the society and one would guess, widely accepted. It is through this channel that Germany had come to embrace its new national dish: doner kebab. Moreover, through this supposedly controlled migration, Germany became what it never wanted to be: a country where people came to stay. As recently as the 1980s the newly elected chancellor Helmut Kohl declared Germany not to be an ‘immigration country’, affronting more than four million people with non-German heritage. Had he said something similar about public servants or elderly people, his political career would have been finished at the next election in 1987.

The country has also profited on the football pitch as players such as Özil, Gündogan, Kevin Kuranyi, Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose – to name the best known – enriched the national team from 2000 onwards and certainly helped Germany play attractive and successful football again. Out of those mentioned, Özil, Klose and Podolski were key players in the triumphant 2014 World Cup squad. Moreover, Joachim Löw, the German national coach, has often stated that Mesut Özil was his favourite player. It is therefore even more surprising not to have seen any public support from him for Özil during this whole affair.

To sing or not to sing

The uneasiness in some parts of German society has been visible or at least audible by complaints that some players with migrant heritage don’t sing the national anthem before the kick-off of international matches. To sing or not to sing – this has been a tricky question for some years now. Certainly, these feelings were underlined by the fact that among those who did not sing were Özil, Podolski and Klose but also Jerome Boateng. Özil for instance did not sing the national anthem but also gave an explanation why; instead he prayed that the game would be successful for his team and that neither he or his team mates would suffer injuries or injustice during the match. Still, this was not enough and people would not accept it. Had he sung the anthem, surely public opinion would have been ‘just because he’s singing the anthem, doesn’t automatically him German’. Imagine Manuel Neuer doing the same with the Lord’s Prayer; the Catholic church would bless him outright.

The Politics

It is also certain that there were elements among German supporters who held xenophobic and racist views. Though this was always a minority, they have since become encouraged to speak openly about their thoughts and opinions. Their moment to come out of the closet came in 2015 during the so-called migration crisis when Germany sheltered about a million people from the Middle East in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Hungary and further south. The events of that autumn provided a welcome upswing of support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the latest party on Germany‘s political landscape. Though small they may be, AfD has since enjoyed enormous success, winning seats in every Landtag (German regional parliaments). It did so largely with an anti-migration policy which appears to attract large sections of the German electorate.

After the decision to open the country’s borders to a million or more migrants in 2015, but before the onslaught of 2018, there was another tournament: Euro 2016 in France. Surprisingly, there was no such outburst of xenophobia and racism in Germany, even though there were terrorist attacks in France just the year before. In fact, it was quite the opposite. When Alexander Gauland of the AfD claimed that no one wanted to have Jerome Boateng as their neighbour, he was reprimanded publicly. Nothing similar happened in 2018. One could argue that after three years of perceived refugee crisis and the attack on the Berlin Christmas Market in December 2016, the climate has become at best uncomfortable, and at worst openly hostile; not only towards migrants but in society in general.

This trend has not come about overnight; it has been in the making for some time and can be traced back to the introduction of new regulations concerning unemployment benefits and the introduction of “mini-jobs“ in the early noughties. It was, cynically, a Social Democrat government under chancellor Gerhard Schröder responsible for this. Suddenly, Germany turned from being the sick man of Europe into the role model because within a few years unemployment figures decreased rapidly. The so-called Ich-AGs, i.e. self-employed entrepreneurs who do basically anything and have to take care of social security and insurance themselves, were all the rage in Germany. Additionally, the Hartz 4 regulation has put jobseekers under enormous stress to accept almost any kind of job offered by the job centre which has pressurised those under stress even more. The new class of mini jobbers work for €450 per month which exempts their employers from paying taxes and social security contributions, leaving employees without any safety net. Although this led to impressive looking unemployment statistics it created a new class of day labourers and poor people.

It was just a question of time before this would lead to the rise of a party from even further right than the most conservative wings of the CDU and CSU. That it took more than ten years may be indicative of the strength of the democratic mindset in Germany.

On the pitch: The scapegoat

With such a burden, the German team travelled to Russia in order to defend their title. Nothing would have been said had they reached at least the quarter-finals. There wouldn't have been this discussion, conducted with such ferocity that one feared for the health of all parties involved. That it came this far was partly Özils fault, that much has to be said. After the meeting with Erdogan he went AWOL. During the preparation camp he missed the media day which was the best opportunity to explain himself. Nothing happened. In contrast to Özil, Ilkay Gündogan spoke out. His roots are also Turkish but he considers himself a German who plays for Germany, sings the anthem and hopes that one day his children will live in Germany.

The longer Özil remained silent, the more difficult the problem became for everyone involved. For the German FA (DFB) the matter was – at least internally – over and it was hoped that a successful tournament would help put the episode behind them. It was not and in hindsight it appears logical that the national coach, Joachim Löw, should have left Özil at home even if this meant leaving out the sqaud‘s most creative player. In fact the statistics for Özil show that he was still one of the most influential, despite playing only two games – he lined up against Mexico and South Korea but was left out for the Sweden match. During the group stage, Özil had created 11 chances which was the best of any team. The failure of the German team was not his fault alone but he was made responsible for it. Him alone.

The media

Partly this was justified as he appeared to play with the brakes applied. Mostly, it was the media who began a witch hunt against Özil. This raises the question whether the media are to blame for the way this debate went. This is an ambivalent question simply because the media can't be blamed for doing their job. Reporting on issues such as this is surely one thing, creating a climate of blame is quite another. Yet most framed their coverage of Germany's underwhelming World Cup campaign with images of Mesut Özil; not Hummel, Neuer or Khedira but Özil. Thus, he was automatically seen as the public face of the debacle.

In the days after the player announcedd his retirement from the German national team, the papers were all over him and his explanation. Most notably Bild Zeitung, Germany’s notorious tabloid known for twisting facts and tweaking the truth if needed. For years their discriminatory coverage of refugees helped stir up negative public opinion. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once declared he only needed Bild, BamS und Glotze to stay informed; BamS is the sunday edition of Bild and Glotze is a derogatory term for television. Surely, Bild did not need any politician to make politics their way, not least a social democrat like Schröder. Bild has always been a right leaning, conservative paper from its very beginning in 1952.

This paper attacked the player ferociously and never tried to look any deeper into accusations of racism within football. The headline on the front page ran “Özil: shameful retirement and mazy reckoning with Germany.” It was Özil against Germany; him against us.

No winners, just losers?

The whole affair has left a sour aftertaste and no one comes out of it looking good. The German national team have lost a player of outstanding quality; the DFB has damaged its own image almost beyond repair; it is a scandal that Reinhard Grindel, its president, is still in charge and behaves as though nothing has happened. That is an even greater shame considering that the DFB has launched several initiatives that saw thousands of refugees start playing football; between March 2015 and October 2016, 2,750 clubs have offered refugees the chance to play and in 2015 alone there were 42,000 new registrations from refugees showing that the DFB is well aware of its crucial role in society. That the president of this very association failed to step up and support Mesut Özil is shameful; that the team themselves could not come out with something like the Swedish did with their player Jimmy Durmaz, who is coincidentally also of Turkish descent, speaks volumes. The AfD will see their points about migration vindicated, spreading their poison further.

Yes, the photo shoot was not the best idea and instead of being forgotten became a millstone that dragged Germany and German football into an ill-fated debate about racism. While such debate must take place, it should not be left to those screaming from the right wing. All of society must engage and not just in Germany but across Europe. This way it may be possible that 2018 will be remembered as the year in which Germany exited early from the World Cup in Russia but also in which a thoughtful debate about one of the most pressing issues of our time began.

DR. CHRISTOPH WAGNER - @wagnerc23

http://www.anoldinternational.co.uk/