Between the Lines: Mesut Ozil Hasn't 'Retired' But Is He to Blame or the German FA & Media?
Whoever says that politics and sports should not mix is probably a hypocrite. Football players are supposed to be role models - until they stand up for something they believe in which is diametrically opposite to the beliefs of the people.
Just ask Mesut Ozil, he found out the hard way that even fighting for one's right to play can be a process that will always encounter opposition no matter how good you are. But this was a mic-drop like no other
In a world where players are trained to be media-friendly and avoid debating on burning issues, his open statement was a welcome sight. No longer should players be shackled by their celebrity image or sponsorship deals to walk the thin line between safety and courting controversy.
This is the best German player in the current golden generation that we're talking about, by the way. A midfielder who was voted Germany's Player of the Year award five times in six years (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016).
Yet, the Arsenal star is now fighting what seems to be a lone battle to counter the tide of criticism and blind hatred for a photo with a world leader.
Ozil hasn't "retired" from international football
Let's be clear about this first; technically his statement did not mention "retirement". He only said he cannot put on the black-and-white kit under the current circumstances.
"I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect. I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don‘t."
Ozil's complete statement is more than 2,300 words spread across numerous tweets. In his statement, he is very clear about who he feels is responsible for the fiasco that threatened to derail Germany's World Cup campaign in Russia.
Backstory: Meeting with Turkish President Erdogan
Back in May, Ozil and German teammate Ilkay Gundogan were vilified for meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The pair had even had a couple of photos taken with the president.
Erdogan is famous the world over for his muzzling of free speech in the country and his political vendetta against his opponents. Those who criticise him have faced his wrath and the failed coup to topple his regime in 2016 only emboldened him to control his military and imprison more than 60,000 people who were against him - be it journalists or even academics.
Even famous sports celebrities were not spared. Hakan Sukur, a Turkish football legend turned politician, is in exile in the United States because there was a warrant out for his arrest while NBA star Enes Kanter had his passport cancelled by the Turkish regime.
Obviously, one can understand why the general public in Germany would be upset about Ozil meeting a person perceived to be a dictator and a divisive politician in his own country. Recent issues such as migration politics have changed the political landscape in Germany while the rise of far-right-wing parties has only widened the gap between people.
Ozil defended the meeting by explaining that he is only half German, respecting his Turkish heritage. The only reason he met Erdogan was to "respect the highest office of my family’s country."
"My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies. In fact, we spoke about the same topic that we do every time we have met - football - as he too was a player in his youth.
"Although the German media have portrayed something different, the truth is that not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today.
"For me, it didn't matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President."
This logic is questionable. But looking at what happened to Sukur and Kanter, Ozil probably decided there was no point angering a powerful leader such as Erdogan.
With Erdogan even attacking families of such stars (Kanter's father had a warrant out for his arrest), did Ozil simply decide not to test his penchant for retribution?
Only he knows. But it was not a prudent move to meet him and pose with him just before a World Cup - even if it was a charity event.
What it did cause was an uproar in the German media just days before they were to defend their World Cup title in Russia. However, even here a lot of the criticism was completely unwarranted as the media stirred the pot to discredit Ozil.
Media goes overboard in criticism of Ozil
As soon as the photo became public, Ozil was shielded by the German team and removed from media duties while, on the other hand, certain sponsors removed him from their marketing campaigns.
But that did not stop the media from having a field day. Attacking Ozil became their no.1 priority - so much so that the entire blame of Die Mannschaft's group stage exit was laid at his feet.
There were a number of reasons why Germany were knocked out in the first round. Ozil was culpable but so were the rest of the squad. Instead, the Arsenal midfielder was targeted in a campaign aimed at politicising the meeting rather than analysing the reasons for their premature exit.
"What I can’t accept, are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.
"Certain German newspapers are using my background and photo with President Erdogan as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause. Why else did they use pictures and headlines with my name as a direct explanation for defeat in Russia?
"They didn‘t criticise my performances. They didn‘t criticise the team‘s performances, they just criticised my Turkish ancestry and respect for my upbringing. This crosses a personal line that should never be crossed, as newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me."
This holds true. Before the World Cup, both Ozil and Gundogan were booed by the fans during friendlies and the media made calls for both players to be dropped.
Yes, the media wanted Germany's most creative player dropped from the squad. Luckily, common sense prevailed when both coach Joachim Low and team manager Oliver Bierhoff supported him and refused to drop him.
But when Germany lost the opening game to Mexico, Ozil was immediately made a scapegoat even though he was clearly not at fault for the tactics employed.
Also read: Germany 0-1 Mexico - 5 Talking Points
When Ozil was dropped for the second game, the criticism revolved around whether he celebrated Toni Kroos' late winner with enough passion and whether he sprinted to the corner flag to celebrate with his teammates! (He did).
"What I also ﬁnd disappointing are the double standards that the media has. Lothar Matthaus (an honorary German national team captain) met with another world leader a few days back, and received almost no media criticism.
"Despite his role with the DFB (German national team), they have not asked him to publicly explain his actions and he continues to represent the players of Germany without any reprimand."
This also rings true. For those unaware, Matthaus was seen hobnobbing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and although one paper did brand the German legend a propaganda tool for the Russian leader, it barely made waves in German media compared to the constant and unjustified criticism of Ozil.
Ozil attacks DFB and its President
Not stopping there, Ozil then took his ire out on the DFB and specifically its president Reinhard Grindel. In truth, Grindel asked for it.
"Many fans were disappointed because they had questions for [Ozil] and expected an answer," he had told Kicker (a German magazine). "For me, it is absolutely clear that, once he returns from holiday, and with his own interests in mind, he should make his views heard."
Ozil explained the reasoning behind the photo with Erdogan and defended his heritage and ancestry but complained that Grindel only "belittled" his opinion.
“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.
"In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose."
Ozil explains how Grindel took it personally when Ozil met President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier behind closed doors, thereby preventing Grindel from "boosting his own political agenda."
After the World Cup fiasco, Grindel took pleasure in making Ozil a scapegoat and had even aired his views on Twitter to further his own political stance about Ozil and immigrants in general.
Ozil is very scathing in his attack on Grindel and German politician Bernd Holzhauer who called him a “goat-f***er”.
If Ozil is to return to the national team (remember, he's only 29 and still has a number of years at the top level left in him), the first step for the DFB would be to get rid of Grindel. It may not be enough, but it is definitely a start.
The Issue of Racism
This is where Ozil winds up for his knockout punch. To him, Germany used to be a country that was very inclusive and progressive, welcoming both immigrants and refugees alike. However, the tide has changed in recent years and people like Ozil have felt marginalised.
"Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not ﬁt? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I'm a Muslim?
"I think here lays an important issue. By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don't people accept that I am German?"
As a wealthy footballer, Ozil has supported a number of charitable causes. In his birthplace Gelsenkirchen, he funded a project that helped children from poor backgrounds and immigrants to integrate into society through football.
He has even funded life-saving surgeries for many children in Africa, Brazil, and Russia.
"This for me is the most important thing that I do as a football player, yet the newspapers ﬁnd no space to raise awareness about this sort of thing.
"For them, me being booed or taking a picture with a President is more signiﬁcant then helping children get surgeries worldwide. They too have a platform to raise awareness and funds but choose not to do so."
Many may perceive Ozil to have opened a can of worms. Instead, he has only spilt some of the worst-kept secrets out in the open for critics to assimilate and form their own opinion - preferably in an unbiased manner.
The German FA (DFB) have a lot of damage control to do. Ozil's teammates are yet to respond to Ozil's statement and come out in his defence.
But they are also stuck between a rock and a hard place. They won't want to stab Ozil in the back but if they are seen supporting him then they will be classified as Erdogan supporters too.
Who will prevail remains to be seen; saner voices in the DFB and the German team or right-wing propaganda machines whose sole ambition is to use Ozil as a tool to further their own agenda.