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Özil anger justified, Grindel must face the music

Kommentarbild Matt Pearson
Matt Pearson
July 22, 2018

Mesut Özil's photo op with Recep Tayyip Erdogan was ill-advised. But the reaction to it, and his scapegoating by the German FA, is a sad tale of poor management with worrying xenophobic notes, writes DW's Matt Pearson.

Fußball WM 2018 - Mesut Özil
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

After 92 caps, nine years and a World Cup win, Mesut Özil's Germany career looks set to end in brave tweets and burnt bridges. The 29-year-old said on Sunday that he will never again play for Germany while he has "this feeling of racism and disrespect."

Özil's trio of furious but focused Twitter missives on Sunday laid bare a long list of grievances about his treatment by the German media, the German FA (DFB) and the national team's fans in the wake of the controversy caused when Özil — and Germany teammate Ilkay Gündogan — posed for photos with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

DFB President Reinhard Grindel was Özil's primary target. "I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly," read one of several scathing lines in the third lengthy statement. 

DW's Matt Pearson
DW's Matt Pearson

Questions to answer for DFB boss

Earlier, Özil had set his sights on the media. "What I can't accept," Özil wrote," are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.

His anger is justified. And after Özil answered Grindel's earlier demand that he speak out on the Erdogan photo, the onus now falls on the DFB chief to do some explaining of his own. Grindel initially backed Löw's decision to take Özil to the World Cup then decided Özil needed to answer for his actions at the very moment when his organisation was desperately searching for someone to blame for their limp World Cup surrender. All very convenient.

"Many fans were disappointed because they had questions for [Özil] and expected an answer," he told German football magazine kicker earlier this month. "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."

Well Reinhard, he has. And he's also called you out on a few of your own words, from your time as a politician in 2004 when you said multiculturalism was "a myth and a lifelong lie." If that is still Grindel's view, it doesn't seem appropriate for him to continue in a position where he's overseeing players and coaches from a variety of backgrounds.

It really didn't have to come to this. There's little doubt Özil's decision to pose for a photograph with a leader who has given freedom of expression short shrift and suppressed political opponents and dissidents in his quest for power was questionable. Of course the photoshoot was part of a charity event, but Özil, and for that matter Ilkay Gündogan, could presumably have fulfilled their obligations without striking a pose.

Erdogan mit Özil (picture-alliance/dpa/Uncredited/Presdential Press Service)
Özil posed for a picture with Erdogan in MayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Presidential Press Service

But none of that remotely excuses the poisonous reaction to what was, after all, just a photo. The far-right Alternative for Germany's (AfD) predictably dumb rhetoric was, equally predictably, surpassed in volume and vitriol by the armies of social media bigots.

Reaction quickly turned toxic

Özil mentions how he's been called a "goat f**cker" by a German politician and a "Turkish s**t" by his own fans, is it really any wonder that he's no longer comfortable representing a country where both those in power and those who should be backing him don't consider him to be their equal?

Özil could have handled this situation better, but he's a footballer, not a diplomat. Dealing with media storms should be simple for the DFB. While they aren't an organisation known for their competence, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion, which Özil draws, that a Muslim player of Turkish origin is subject to much fiercer criticism than others in his position would be.

For example, former Germany skipper Lothar Mätthaus, now an ambassador for the DFB, was recently photographed shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, a man not renowned for his tolerance. The outcry was noticeable by its near-total absence.

The reaction from those in power and from many so-called fans of football to what is, after all is said and done, just a photo, has revealed a pretty sinister and xenophobic undertone in German football and society. There seems to be no way back for Özil, but the hope is that he'll take Grindel with him. That's about the only way something positive can come from this mess.

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