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For the first time in over a year, Mesut Özil has discussed the 'racist abuse' that led to his decision to retire from international football. Özil believes it points to a political and social shift in Germany.
A defining figure in one of the most successful generations of German football, Mesut Özil's international career ended in acrimony rather than adulation. Since then, the World Cup winner has refrained from speaking publically on the situation — until now.
For the first time since his explosive and strongly-worded retirement announcement, the World Cup winner has defended his controversial photo with Turkish presidentRecep Tayyip Erdogan and opened up about his decision in an interview with The Athletic.
"With time to reflect, I know it was the right decision," the 31-year-old said. "It was a very difficult period for me as I played nine years for Germany and was one of their most successful players. I won the World Cup and more, played a lot of games — a lot of them really good — and gave everything."
For several years, Özil's name was one of the first, if not the first, name onGermany's team sheet. However, after an ill-advised photo with Erdogan in the lead up to the disastrous 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, the midfielder was left feeling "disrespected and unprotected" by the Deutsche Fußball Bund (DFB).
"I was receiving racist abuse - even from politicians and public figures - yet nobody from the national team came out at that time and said, 'Hey, stop. This is our player, you can't insult him like that'. Everyone just kept quiet and let it happen."
As for the fans in Russia, Özil references statements made as he left the field of play such as: "Go back to your country", "F--- yourself" and "Turkish pig". It was the same treatmentteammate Ilkay Gündogan , who also featured in the infamous photo with Erdogan, received in a pre-tournament friendly in Leverkusen.
"It felt like I was expected to apologise for the meeting, admit I'd made a mistake and then everything would be fine; otherwise I was not welcome in the team and should leave. I would never do that."
Given that he was the best man at his wedding in June 2018, the Arsenal man's relationship with Erdogan goes beyond photo opportunities. However, he maintains that when it comes to the photo, he would not have done anything differently as his decision was "about showing respect to the highest position of a country". It was the fallout though, that concerned him the most.
Best man Erdogan (2nd from l.) congratulates Mesut Özil and his wife at their wedding on the Bosporus.
"Racism has always been there, but people used this situation as an excuse to let it out," continued Özil. "They are free to have a personal view, to dislike a photo I've taken, just as I'm free to make a personal decision to have the photo taken. But what followed exposed their racism for everyone to see."
A figurehead for German football's campaign to promote integration, Özil sees his treatment as indicative of a political and social shift in Germany, referencing the most recent attack in Halle in which two people were killed by an armed man.
"There are major problems in Germany - just look at what happened in Halle last week, another anti-semitic attack. Unfortunately, racism is no longer only a right-wing issue in the country. It has shifted into the middle of society."
The chapter has definitely closed on his international career, but Özil's words will still reverberate around German football and the country as a whole.