Locals stand behind Mesut Özil in his native Gelsenkirchen | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.07.2018
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Locals stand behind Mesut Özil in his native Gelsenkirchen

Mesut Özil was born and raised in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen. It's where the 2014 World Cup-winner learned how to play football. DW's Rahel Klein talked to people there about his national team retirement.

Baran, 8 years old, was biking around downtown Gelsenkirchen with a couple of his friends. He hadn't heard yet that Mesut Özil had retired from the German national team.

"What?!" Baran's eyes were wide when he received the news. "But what country is he playing for instead then?"

Since he debuted for Germany in 2009, Özil has earned 92 caps and scored 23 goals. In 2014, he won the World Cup in Brazil.

Read more: The Özil affair: A chronology in quotations

On July 22, he announced his retirement from international football in a three-part statement on Twitter. Among his reasons was a "feeling of racism and disrespectfulness."

Understanding in Özil's hometown

Özil was born and raised in the Bismarck neighborhood of Gelsenkirchen. His grandparents moved to Germany's western Ruhr valley with their two-year-old son, Özil's father Mustafa. Young Mesut started his football career at Bornstrasse number 30 — the pitch is only a two-minute walk away from the unassuming yellow terrace house.

Mesut Özil's childhood home (DW/R. Klein)

The home where Özil lived as a child is just a short walk from the football pitch

"I still remember Özil as a small kid," said Gerd K., who was sitting on a stoop on the central Bismarck Street. "Likable guy, always played football around the corner from here." Gerd said he didn't approve of Özil posing for a picture with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the recent World Cup in Russia, but will always come to Özil's defense: "The DFB (German Football Federation) should look in the mirror. It's not pretty anymore what's going on there."

To Gerd, Özil's sudden international retirement at age 29 is understandable. "Yes, I would have done so earlier," he said. "It's like he said: The Germans are allowed to play badly. But a German with migrant roots gets blamed for it."

Read more: Mesut Özil’s resignation is a huge on-field blow for Germany

Özil has left traces all over Bismarck. Most of the people here have small anecdotes to tell about the international football star that grew up here. And in all of them he's described as quiet and friendly.

Volkan, the local doner kebab shop, is known in the neighborhood as the place where Özil and his siblings stop by for dinner every now and then.

"We're open around the clock, Özil shows up in the middle of the night, when it's quieter," the owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said. He described Özil as a nice, likable, respectful person. And what about Özil not wanting to play for Germany anymore? "That's ok with me, it's his decision."

Football pitch in Mesut Özil's home neighborhood (DW/R. Klein)

Those who knew Özil during his childhood described him as quiet and respectful

'A football player lives on fan support'

Ihsan Cukur, a hairdresser in his late 30s, played football for a long time himself,  and friends of his brother even shared the pitch with Özil.

"He was always nice," Cukur said. "Even when he got better and better, he never used it to show off." He, too, can understand Özil's international retirement. "Suddenly everyone was against him," Cukur said. He believes that sports and politics should be two separate things.

Read more: German Turks still rooted in the east: study

The boos and jeers that Özil had to deal with were inappropriate, according to Cukur: "A football player lives on fan support, too. If the fans don't accept Özil, he can't play anymore."

Cukur also understands exactly what Özil was talking about when he mentioned having two hearts, a German and a Turkish one. The hairdresser knows the problems and the consequences that stance comes with: "We're always in between. In Turkey, we're the Germans. And here we're German-Turkish or something like that. We aren't accepted over there and we aren't accepted here either. What are you gonna do?"

Ihsan Cukur (DW/R. Klein)

Cukur says that having German and Turkish heritage can make it difficult to be accepted

Afraid of harassment

It's noticeable in Gelsenkirchen that Germans with Turkish roots feel increasingly under pressure. Many of them don't want to be named in media, or only reveal their first names because they're afraid of being publicly harassed.

That's why Name S. won't share her last name. The 31-year-old teacher was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Her parents came to Germany as migrant workers. She would have appreciated a more nuanced approach to the whole Özil discussion from the very beginning. "Everything is always just seen in black and white," she said. "But it's not that easy."

Read more: Mesut Özil's lonely farewell

Name thinks the photo Özil took with Erdogan was a mistake. "He shouldn't have done that," she said. "But to take this and connect it to the team's performance was borderline."

Name understands why Özil's retirement created such a stir: "With Özil, you know that if the trust isn't there, he can't perform to the fullest of his ability. It has always been that way with him."

But for 8-year-old Baran, things are very simple, despite the fact that Özil's international career is over. "He has to play for Germany," Baran said. "He's a good football player."

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