The soccer star Mesut Özil, a midfielder who now plays for Arsenal and helped Germany win the 2014 World Cup, was born in 1988 in Gelsenkirchen, an industrial city in West Germany, a grandchild of Turkish immigrants, and rose to national prominence in a country where few products of immigration do. When he announced in a letter posted on Twitter on Sunday that he was quitting Germany’s national team, citing “racism and disrespect,” he used words that will resonate in Germany for a long time. “When we win, I am German,” he wrote. “When we lose, I am an immigrant.”
Within hours, the tweet to his 23 million followers opened a ferocious debate in Germany—about racism, about anti-Muslim sentiment, about whether the German model of integration, however one defined it, was “a myth” or had failed; about dual nationality, even about dual loyalty (a term not used lightly in Germany)—as well as about soccer sportsmanship and the management of this year’s German national team, which placed out of this year’s World Cup in early stages, a fate some right-wing German soccer fans took to the internet to blame on Özil. In his letter, he said he was tired of being a scapegoat.
“I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” Özil wrote in his statement. That he, a member of the second generation of his family to be born in Germany, even had to qualify this tells you a lot about the current state of affairs in Germany and other European countries. For their own historical reasons, Germany, France, Italy, and other continental countries do not tend to embrace the American “melting pot” model or even the British post-colonial multicultural model. Instead, they have more rigid definitions of national identity, which often make it difficult for products of immigration to embrace multiple cultures at once—as we saw last week in the tiff between Trevor Noah and the French ambassador to the United States, who took grave offense at Noah’s joking of France’s multiethnic team that “Africa won the World Cup.”