Written by Markus Fjørtoft, footballer and Duke University Alum with a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree.
Over the last few weeks, following Mesut Özil’s picture with controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Germany’s unforeseen exit from the group stages of the World Cup, the exacerbated form of criticism bestowed upon Özil has gradually, then rather abruptly, drawn me into a state of anger, contemplation, but most of all empathy.
Because as the Özil saga continues, the sheer absurdity of people in power publicly criticizing him seems to carry on, so indulged in their own conviction that room for self-reflection is non-existent. While my stance on the matter is evident, and thus utters a sense of conviction in of itself, I will attempt to explain this without an inherent bias.
To be clear, mere association does not qualify as an endorsement. The logic of this is dumbfounded, exemplified by Erdogan’s visit to London in which he met with both the Queen and Prime Minister. While this was subject of scrutiny, it did not receive near as much backlash (the implications of this is not for me to discuss, and much rather reserved for political enthusiasts).
However, one can look to debunk this argument by questioning why Özil would agree to meet with Erdogan to begin with. After all, as a global star, he is a role model to many, and surely he should at least consider the example he sets when pictured in company with the leader of an authoritarian and oppressive regime. And perhaps this constitutes part of Özil’s statement I find the least convincing: the separation of political position and person occupying it.
«For me, it didn’t matter who was president, it mattered that it was the president.»
The argument follows the logic that regardless of who holds position, the respect upheld for the position of president legitimizes meeting with any person occupying it. «Not meeting the president would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today.» Critics might highlight an inherent hypocrisy in this statement. Would actually opposing Erdogan and thus his regime’s policies, represent greater homage to his family and Turkey alike?
Yet, this diverges into a somewhat separate discussion subject of heated contemporary debate: the role of an athlete (as made most apparent in the National Football League). Should politics and sports be held separate, or conversely, should athletes use their voice to initiate social/political change? This is at the mercy of an individual’s discretion. Some are passionate about charity, others politics, and some prefer to remain just an athlete. That is their choice.
Therefore, I think it is unfair to expect Özil to become a political talisman in the conflict waged between two countries he calls home (which he ironically became in meeting with Erdogan, as the picture with the President inevitably played a part in the political party’s buildup to the elections). As cited by Raphael Honigstein, «former international Hakan Şükür and NBA player Enes Kanter have faced severe repercussions for themselves and their families, which could explain Özil’s inability to distance himself from Erdogan».
Such a stance requires immense courage. It shouldn’t be a general expectancy. It is thus understandable that Özil refrains from taking this position, in light of the apparent implications. Ultimately, this highlights the state of Turkey’s current regime more than anything else. But, it also proves the complexity pertaining to Özil’s situation, and that he would face backlash regardless of the choice he made.
Lastly, and most worryingly, I’d argue, is the racial element to this conversation. The severity of such an accusation cannot be undermined. While it’s fair to say most of the criticism of Özil throughout his career has not been rooted in racism, but rather been subject to critics’ subjective preferences and expectations of a player, however unreasonable at times, the lambasting of Özil these last weeks has been nothing but shocking.
Racism is not as much revealed on a macro level, as on a micro level. This is why those who are not on the receiving end of this, cannot recognize the racism prevalent throughout. We can emphasize but never properly understand the experience. It is not our right to tell someone how they should feel. If Özil is of this opinion, it should be taken very seriously. And yet, in his expressions his opinion is trivialized by the very institution accused. That is a problem. He quit the national team because of it. A prevailing hypocrisy still seeps through amongst people and institutions. I am not here to claim everyone is guilty of this, but by the way the criticism has developed, it is significant enough not to be ignored.
«In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.»
Rather than appreciate his duality, his contributions as a descendant of a multicultural background that proudly exemplifies the very best of immigration, his «mistake» presented as an opportunity for people to finally “take him down”. He is at no mercy at the hands of his own country.
Despite his «mistakes», he is German, he is one of their own, and yet in face of troubles, the country (represented in this case by the FA and the most public critics) turn their back on him, use him as their scapegoat, and trivialize his experience of racism.
I am the first to admit that Mesut Özil’s role in this matter has been far from perfect, but such accusations must be taken seriously. And in doing so, we can at least better educate ourselves on matters of conflict and prejudice.