The shock decision by one of Germany’s most high-profile footballers to quit the national side citing “racism and disrespect” over his Turkish roots has reignited a fierce debate over the country’s attitude towards race and immigration.
Mesut Özil was strongly criticised after being photographed with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an event in London shortly before June’s Turkish elections. The 29-year-old Arsenal midfielder said the incident had prompted hate mail and threats against him and was blamed for Germany’s disappointing performance in the World Cup.
Germany’s justice minister Katarina Barley said Mr Özil’s decision to leave the national team, announced at the weekend, was an “alarm signal” that highlighted the prevalence of racism in German society.
On Monday Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman said the integration of people with an immigrant background “was one of the government’s key tasks”.
“Mesut Özil is a great football player who has achieved a lot for the national football team,” Ulrike Demmer said. He had made a decision “which we should respect”.
She added that sport had played a big role in integrating ethnic minorities, and praised the German Football Association (DFB) for its “many initiatives, campaigns and projects promoting integration and cohesion in our country”.
But there was criticism of Mr Özil’s behaviour from other quarters. “I don’t think . . . the case of a multimillionaire who lives and works in England says much about Germany’s ability to integrate immigrants,” said Heiko Maas, foreign minister.
The popular newspaper Bild said Mr Özil had failed to see how incensed Germans were at the sight of the footballer endorsing Mr Erdogan. “Özil talks about his ‘values’,” the paper said. “But he ignores the fact that Erdogan is not for but against the values of his German and Turkish homeland . . . [He] is increasingly transforming the freedom-loving, moderately religious Turkey into an Islamist dictatorship.”
Annette Widmann-Mauz, the German government’s immigration commissioner, said much as she sympathised with Mr Özil’s family roots “players in the national football team must accept criticism when they allow themselves to be used in election campaigns”.
In a three-page statement posted on social media, Mr Özil, who played 92 matches and scored 23 goals for the national team in an international career spanning nine years, said he had been born and brought up in Germany — “so why don’t people accept that I am German?”
The controversy over the picture of Mr Özil’s meeting with the Turkish president overshadowed the German team’s preparations for this month’s World Cup. Ilkay Gündoğan, another German player with Turkish roots also photographed with Mr Erdogan, said that there was nothing political about the picture. But Mr Özil had kept silent on the matter — until Sunday.
In his statement he said the meeting with Mr Erdogan was “not about politics or elections . . . It was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country”. But he said some German newspapers had used the photograph “as a direct explanation for defeat in Russia”.
Mr Özil was particularly scathing about Reinhard Grindel, head of the DFB, whom he described as “patronising”, “incompetent” and borderline racist. Many Germans have since called on Mr Grindel to resign.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Mr Özil said.
The DFB said in a statement on Monday that it “regretted” Mr Özil’s decision to quit but rejected his accusation of racism. “The DFB has for years been committed to integrating [immigrants] in Germany,” it said, adding that it “stands for diversity, from its leadership to the countless people in the grass roots who work so hard on a daily basis”.
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