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23rd Jul 2018

COMMENT: Mesut Ozil deserves credit for saying what no one wants to hear

Nooruddean Choudry

Last week, Trevor Noah addressed the issue of football and national identity

He was responding to a letter of complaint from the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud. Noah had previously joked that the continent of Africa had won the World Cup, due to the notable percentage of France’s squad that are of African heritage. Monsieur Araud did not appreciate the nod to ‘hyphenated identities’, and stressed to Noah that each and every player in the World Cup-winning squad was French and only French.

Noah’s riposte was witty, insightful and thought-provoking. The Daily Show host made many important points, but one, in particular, serves as an apt metaphor for how immigrants and their offspring can conveniently be labelled (and relabelled) as ‘us’ or ‘them’ at the drop of a hat… or baby.

Noah used the example of Mamoudou ‘Spider-Man’ Gassama, a Malian man who was granted French citizenship after he fantastically scaled an apartment building to save a young child hanging from a balcony.

“So is he now no longer African? Is that what you’re saying?” Noah asked. “When he was on the ground, he was African, and then he climbed up and rescued the baby, then he’s French. So if he dropped the baby? ‘The African dropped the baby.’”

As with all effective satire, it is ridiculous enough to be funny, but real enough to pierce the conscience. Certainly, Mesut Ozil can vouch for how uncomfortably on the button the laughable scenario is. This week, the mercurial playmaker opened up about his treatment following Germany’s disastrous World Cup campaign, and how he now feels compelled to turn his back on the national team he represented with pride for nearly a decade.

Ozil “dropped the baby” when he posed for a photograph alongside Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May. In the first part of a detailed three-part statement, the Arsenal player explains how and why the snap was taken, stressing that it was in no way a political statement or any form of endorsement of the president’s policies or actions. Ozil explains that it was rather a concession – an act of respect – to the “highest office of [his] family’s country”.

Whether this convenient separation of man and office can ever excuse posing with someone of Erdogan’s reputation is certainly open to debate and criticism. But the repeated references that Ozil makes to his mother in his explanation are perhaps telling. It suggests that his decision to be pictured beside a despotic leader who has carried out severe retribution on political foes – and their families – wasn’t merely a personal whim.

Regardless of whether you find the photograph a pragmatic choice, identity statement, or indeed a political stance, a key point that Ozil makes is, essentially, why do you suddenly give a shit? He pointedly stresses that it is hardly the first time he has been pictured with Erdogan, so why the sudden brouhaha now, and not then? Their numerous previous meetings without reproach seem odd in the current context of interrogation and accusation.

It is almost as if there’s a correlation between how well the national team performs, and how much personal criticism a high-profile star of Turkish descent attracts. It would hardly be the first time that an ethnic minority or members of an immigrant community have been used as convenient targets for a general sense of anger. Even heroes, who have previously scaled heights to rescue the World Cup, are not immune to a sudden push.

For the likes of Reinhard Grindel, Mesut Ozil was always likely to be a convenient stooge. The German FA president features heavily in the player’s long-form statement, and the polemic is clear: the head of the national game has a proven track record of questioning/resenting multiculturalism in German society, and thusly identified Ozil’s Erdogan encounter as a serendipitous way of deflecting criticism away from the DFB and himself.

Not that post-tournament diversion tactics fully explain the controversy around this photo, as opposed to previous, similar photos. It was big news before German calamity in Russia, after all. Perhaps the winds of political change have as much to do with the prevailing ire as sporting failure. The rise of the far-right and nationalist rhetoric in recent times make multi-ethnic pride increasingly reviled. Ozil dares to be more than one thing and that won’t do.

It all goes back to the idea of the ‘good immigrant’, and inherent fallacy therein. You can do everything right – be an upstanding member of the community, achieve unprecedented success, busy yourself in socially conscience initiatives, even excel to such an extent that you are held up as a beacon of integration and diversity – but you’re only ever a failure away from being a ‘Turkish pig’, or a Paki, or a black bastard who should fuck off back to Africa.

There is no denying that the now former German international’s encounter/s with Turkey’s president are questionable at best. But as Ozil alludes to, he is victim to a far greater backlash than heads of state doing the same and worse. As for Lothar Matthaus, who questions Ozil’s “comfort” in a DFB shirt, snaps of the German legend with Vladimir Putin received little reprimand in sections of the German media clutching their pearls at Mesut’s moral compass.

The most recent words of condemnation come from that paragon of virtue, Uli Hoeness. The Bayern Munich president complains that Ozil has been “playing dirt for years” and how he “hides himself and his cunt performance behind this photo”. Ozil has famously topped assist charts in every single country he has played in – perhaps he could assist Hoeness in correctly filling in his tax returns in future, to avoid another stint in Landsberg Prison.

I do not admire Mesut Ozil for associating with Erdogan. It’s not quite as bad as Theresa May rolling out the red carpet for him on the same visit, but it still rankles that he’d associate with such a man. That said, I admire Ozil tremendously for his subsequent statement. I cannot say I agreed with all of it, but that’s not the point. He has jeopardised so much to speak some deniable and unpopular truths, and deserves huge credit for that. Now excuse me, I’ve got to find a baby to save.