How a Soccer Star Sparked a Ferocious Debate in Germany

Mesut Özil has dramatically quit the national team, declaring: “When we win, I am German. When we lose, I am an immigrant.”

Özil and Erdoğan pose for a photo holding Özil's Arsenal jersey.
Özil and Erdoğan meet in London. (Kayhan Ozer / Reuters)

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.”

But the Özil case is different and in many ways more fraught, and goes beyond the problematic “good immigrant” versus “bad immigrant” categories he cited in his letter. His resignation did not come out of the blue. Nor did the accusations of dual loyalty. They capped months of controversy that began in May when Özil and another German soccer player of Turkish origins, İlkay Gündoğan, posed for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the run-up to the Turkish national elections in June in which 1.4 million Turks residing in Germany were eligible to vote. German soccer authorities asked Özil to apologize, saying he’d overstepped the boundaries of sportsmanship. The German branch of PEN, the literary and free-speech organization, asked him to speak out against the human-rights violations and the imprisonment of thousands of academics, journalists, and writers in Turkey on Erdoğan’s watch. Özil refused. The German soccer association then began sanctioning him.

Özil wrote in his letter of resignation, “For me, having a picture with President Erdoğan wasn’t about politics or elections. It was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.” But that seems willfully naive at best. “Imagine if the most important baseball player in the worst period of Castro took a picture with Castro. What would they say?” the German novelist Gila Lustiger, a member of German PEN, told me. “At least say that Castro is a dictator,” she added. “He could have said, ‘I took a picture with Erdoğan but I’m for freedom of speech and I don’t think homosexuals should go to prison.’ But he didn’t want to do that.” The German boxer Ünsal Arik, also of Turkish heritage, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he thought Özil had erred in snapping the photo with Erdoğan. “Özil still doesn’t understand what he has done,” Arik told the paper. “He helped a man with blood on his hands in an election campaign. In any other country that would have generated as much clamor as it did in Germany. And rightly so.”

Germany’s relationship with Turkey has become even more fraught of late. The arrival in Germany of 1 million asylum seekers in 2015, most of them Syrians transiting through Turkey, has contributed to a rise in far-right sentiment in Germany. It has also led to Merkel striking a deal in March of 2016 in which Germany gave Turkey funding in exchange for Turkey capping the number of asylum seekers leaving its borders. And Merkel’s coalition government almost cracked this month when the interior minister, Horst Seehofer, the head of a Bavarian right-wing party, threatened to resign over differences about how to handle migration. He insisted on creating “transit camps” to hold would-be arrivals at the German-Austrian border and deport them if it was found they had already applied for asylum elsewhere in Europe.

After Özil announced his resignation, a spokeswoman for Merkel took the “good immigrant” line and said that the chancellor admired Özil and everything he did as a role model for integration, that she respected his decision to quit the national team and believed others should respect it, too. The president of FC Bayern München took the “bad immigrant” line: he accused Özil of resigning because he hadn’t been playing well.

On Tuesday, the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had an above-the-fold cartoon showing Seehofer beneath a title that reads “Germany Thanks You,” with a thought bubble coming out of his head that reads: “Of course I will provide our formerly deserving national team player Özil the soccer field in the courtyard of one of our new transit centers for his farewell match.” Later the same day, Erdoğan expressed his support for Özil, and criticized the “racist” behavior of some Germans. The ironies here run very deep, and won’t be sorted out any time soon.