Tensions Rise Between Turkey and Germany; Mesut Ozil Retires

Mesut Ozil is retiring. The 29-year-old announced the end of his international football career on Twitter last week, citing “racist” and “disrespectful” treatment following Germany’s disappointing exit to the world cup and a controversial meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Germany’s loss to South Korea was, frankly, embarrassing. This is only the second time in recorded world cup history that Germany failed to progress from the first round of matches—the last time it happened was in 1938. Ozil said that he was blamed for the loss, scapegoated because of his Turkish heritage and his decision to meet with Erdogan in May. He  claimes to have received threats and hate mail.

“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.”

Ozil had harsh words for the DFB (German Football Association). “People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has players from dual-heritage families. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent. This decision has been extremely difficult to make because I’ve always given everything for my teammates…but 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,” Ozil said in a lengthy statement he released last week.

In May, Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan (another football player of Turkish descent) met Erdogan in London. The players took photos handing jerseys to the Turkish president. The photos were posted on social media by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party), prompting a wave of reprieve from German politicians and officials, who argued that Erdogan does not represent “German values”. Turkish and German officials have been “locked in a war of words in recent years,” says AL Jazeera. “Ankara accuses Berlin of supporting ‘terrorism’, while Germany has denounced the deterioration of democratic and human rights in Turkey.” Ozil and Gundogan’s meeting with Erdogan brought all of these tensions to the surface. DFB President Reinhard Grindel said that “football and the DFB stand for values that are not sufficiently respected by Mr. Erdogan. That is why it is not good for our national players to be abused by his campaign maneuvers” (quote courtesy of Al Jazeera).

Ozil said that if he hadn’t met Erdogan, he would have been “disrespecting the roots of my ancestors” (quote courtesy of Al Jazeera). “Like many people, my ancestry traces back to more than one country. Whilst I grew up in Germany my family background has its roots firmly based in Turkey,” he said. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.” Following the meeting, Ozil and Gundogan met with Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier posted a photo on Facebook with the players outside of the Bellevue Castle in Berlin.

Still, Ozil and Gundogan were taunted in warm-up games before the World Cup in Russia. And Ozil claims that more racist, xenophobic remarks were addressed his way following Germany’s loss. “I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose,” he said.

DFB President Grindel accused Erdogan of abusing Ozil with his campaign maneuvers—essentially, using Ozil’s star status to further his own political agenda. But weren’t German officials doing precisely the same thing when they reacted so strongly to the photograph of Ozil with Erdogan? They, too, used Ozil’s fame to express their disapproval with Turkey.

Germany is right to condemn the human rights violations that have taken place under Erdogan. However, on the ground level, this condemnation has morphed to racism and xenophobia. Ozil’s career is an unfortunate casualty of this devolution.