Mesut Ozil is a victim of ‘racism and disrespect’, apparently. On Sunday, the Arsenal footballer announced his retirement from the German national team at the age of only 29 amid an ongoing controversy over his meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdogan before the World Cup.
Ozil, a third-generation immigrant of Turkish extraction, was censured by the German FA and media after he was pictured in May grinning alongside the Islamist despot with Everton’s Cenk Tosun and Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan – a German team-mate and fellow Turkish descendant. He insisted the meeting was not an endorsement of Erdogan’s policies and the two merely spoke about football. Nonetheless, the backlash did not subside, and questions over Ozil’s judgment intensified with Germany’s early exit from the tournament.
Ozil feels he was singled out for criticism purely for his ethnic background. In a lengthy statement, he cited the absence of controversy surrounding retired German footballer Lothar Matthaus’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin. He also compared his encounter to Erdogan’s meetings with Theresa May and the Queen. He further asserted that not meeting the President would have been ‘disrespecting the roots of my ancestors’.
All these arguments are somewhat dubious. According to numerous observers, Erdogan has used Turkey’s state of emergency – imposed after a failed coup in 2016 – as a cover further to erode the human rights of his subjects, meaning Turkey is no longer considered a free society. Erdogan cemented his grip in the Presidential elections last month, using the offending picture as propaganda in his campaign.
Perhaps Ozil should therefore explain his logic to the Turkish journalists who are in prison for opposing Erdogan’s policies; their Kurdish compatriots who continue to be persecuted in every sphere of public life, or just about any other Turk who stands to lose from the nation’s slide into Erdogan’s brand of illiberalism. Could Ozil seriously have not found a more appropriate way to celebrate his heritage? And since when did politicians – ignominious or otherwise – embody the life and soul of the people?
Unlike Matthaus, Ozil was an active sportsman at the time of his meeting. Thus, he is understandably held to a different standard and level of scrutiny than a man who has not played football for his country in 18 years. Similarly, Ozil is not a statesman, and does not need to meet dictators out of diplomatic necessity.
Clearly, posing for the snap was a serious and unjustifiable mistake. Gundogan has acknowledged this and apologised, yet Ozil has chosen not to. Instead, he has further insulted the democracy he is supposed to represent by accusing it of ‘racism and disrespect’.
To be fair, Germany – like every Western nation – will have its small band of idiots: Ozil and his family have reportedly received death threats, and Gundogan’s car was vandalised last month. But this is, unfortunately, the penalty of modern public life and mistreatment is certainly not exclusive to national figures of a certain ethnicity.
After all, why has Gundogan since been forgiven by the German FA and media? Perhaps it’s because he showed remorse after needlessly offering tacit support to a man who is the antithesis of modern German values? Perhaps it’s because he realised that athletes who choose to represent their country have no business consorting with overseas autocrats? Or perhaps it’s because he owns up to his mistakes, rather than doubling down with bizarre excuses and wild accusations of racism?
The suggestion of racism, and that Ozil is somehow the victim in all of this, would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. And if Ozil wants to see true oppression, he need only ask his new friend to show him.