A three-part statement from the Arsenal midfielder on Sunday ended with him saying: “I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.” A World Cup winner in 2014, capped 92 times by his country, he is the most influential German player at present. That comes from being of German-Turkish descent, along with having played in Spain and England. Combine his followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and you get a figure of 72 million.
For the Germany team itself, he had been an important regular. Before being dropped against Sweden for the second game of the World Cup in Russia, he had started every game at a major competition since the 2010 World Cup, his debut on the competitive global stage. The controversy around him dates back to May, a day before Germany’s World Cup squad was announced. Ozil, along with Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, was photographed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
That was dimly viewed in Germany, with Erdogan approaching another election and seen by many in the country as a dictator. Only in February, for instance, was German journalist Deniz Yucel released having been detained for a year, accused of spreading propaganda.
“Both [Ozil and Gundogan] have made a mistake but we also have to keep this in perspective,” said German FA president Reinhard Grindel before the World Cup.
When Ozil did not appear at the national team’s media day, he added: “If he doesn’t want to answer in any interviews, then perhaps he’ll do so on the pitch.” Team manager Oliver Bierhoff maintained before the tournament that the issue had been dealt with, but whistles from the crowd at Germany’s final warm-up game in Leverkusen suggested otherwise. Then came the team’s worst World Cup in 80 years, with Ozil – among others – scapegoated by politicians from the country’s far right, keen to make political capital from a football failure.
After Germany’s exit, Gundogan’s bit-part role in Russia kept him largely out of the firing line but Grindel and former Germany striker Bierhoff targeted Ozil.
“To date with the Germany team, we have never forced something [with players], always trying to convince them instead. With Mesut, that didn’t happen and in that sense, you have to consider whether we could have done without him in a sporting sense,” said Bierhoff in an interview with newspaper Die Welt.
Grindel, meanwhile, said Ozil should explain himself.
By making the argument a binary one, and picking out Ozil in the process, their criticism saw them come down on the same side of the argument as those who have torn into Ozil from the country’s far right. That does not include Bayern president Uli Hoeness, but he still laid into Ozil on Monday, calling him a “poor excuse for footballer” who “hadn’t made a tackle since before the 2014 World Cup”. Criticism came too from national tabloid Bild, with one comment piece titled ‘enough is enough’.
Yet while a few have criticised Ozil for only pouring oil onto the fire in the debate, there has been more sympathy for the 29-year-old in the wake of his statements and stronger criticism of the DFB. That started last week, with Hoeness’ cohort Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Bayern chairman, defending Ozil and calling the DFB “amateurs”. The association’s former press officer Harald Stenger has since described Grindel as “the FA’s worst president in the last 50 years” – though he did not work with him at the DFB.
Back in Ehrenfeld, Senol thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. “The guy isn’t to blame. If I was in Ozil’s position, I would have also done the same and why not? He’s our president. It would be the same if Angela Merkel did it too.”
Senol says he doesn’t support Erdogan but there is certainly some naivety on Ozil’s part if he did not appreciate what the consequences of his actions might be. That said, there could be an impact for the DFB at a lower level, as Peter Ahrens from German magazine Der Spiegel pointed out earlier this month.
“A signal that will also register with academy players from migrant families: do the DFB really want us to play for Germany? Whether talented players in the future will choose Germany without hesitation, will probably be discussed differently after the experience in how the Ozil case was dealt with.”
Ozil is by no means the only player in recent German history with a second nationality. Fellow World Cup winners Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski have Polish roots. Sami Khedira is part Tunisian whilst Jerome Boateng is of Ghanaian descent. Boateng came under verbal attack during the last World Cup from one right-wing politician, who said he wouldn’t want the Bayern Munich defender as his neighbour. That was emphatically drowned out by responses from both the player and the public. The Ozil issue, on the other hand, has just dragged on.