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What a Soccer Scandal Says About Dog-Whistle Politics

The resignation of German soccer star Mesut Özil isn't just about racism in the soccer establishment. It's a case study in how Western countries talk about immigration and identity.

Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Mesut Özil, one of the best soccer players of his generation, born and raised in Gelsenkirchen, helped lead Germany to victory in the 2014 World Cup. Four years later, he has announced after months of controversy that he will never again play for the German national team. Özil says the issue is racism. His critics say the issue is Özil helping a dictator win reelection. But at its heart, international observers may find something familiar about this German controversy: in the end, whom you believe largely comes down to how you perceive the long-term European debate over integrating ethnic minorities.

In May, Özil, whose grandfather had moved from Germany to Turkey as a guest worker, posed for photos with Turkish authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many Turkish immigrants in Germany support, despite his repressive policies in Turkey. Mercedes Benz cut him out of their advertisements, apparently no longer thinking him suited to sell their cars—an ironic position for a company with Turkish military sales, which provided Erdogan with vehicles for the Turkish army’s attack on Kurdish-held Afrin, in Syria. The German tabloid Bild ran a campaign for weeks demanding an explanation from the player.

After months of silence and a brief escape to Greece with his girlfriend, Özil released a statement on Sunday to announce his retirement from international football. The meeting with Erdogan, his letter read, was not about endorsing the ruler’s policies (which include brutally reforming his country’s education system) but about “respecting the highest office of my family’s country.” He was a football player, the letter emphasized, and not a politician. But after the German national team put in a poor showing at this year’s World Cup, the football association had made him a “scapegoat” for Germany’s loss, he said, and failed to protect him from the racist attacks of the media and the public—from the voices in Germany and other parts of Europe that jumped on Özil and another teammate at the meeting as examples of “failed integration,” to the Social Democrat politician who described the national team as “twenty-five Germans and two goatfuckers.” (The politician later apologized, claiming that his outburst was the result of “yearlong work with refugees.”)

In Özil’s letter, the person he accuses of letting him down the most is the German Football Association (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel, who he says accepted his explanation about his heritage when they met privately, only to publicly single him out after the defeat by South Korea, saying he disappointed fans by not explaining himself. “In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose,“ Özil’s letter read. “People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has players from dual-heritage families.”

Reinhard Grindel used to sit in German chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party. He is prone to rude phone calls and writing angry letters, but is hardly the sort of right-wing extremist who will plaster the Turkish Embassy with a banner that reads “Erdogan, bring home your Turks,” as a group of brownshirt-wannabe Austrian youths currently on trial in Graz did last year.

As evidence for Grindel’s “racially discriminative background,” Özil’s letter points to a speech that Grindl gave to the Bundestag in 2004, where the footballer-turned-politician said that multiculturalism is a “a myth and lifelong lie” and that there are too many “Islamized” spaces in “our cities.” Grindel’s words might appear shocking to some, but they are not so different from long-term German policy and the conservative party’s stance at the time—that German immigrants must fully assimilate to national values and norms rather than merely learning the language and following the law. It is this ideal of “integration” that right-wingers in particular seized upon in the aftermath of the Özil-Erdogan photo, citing it as an example of those with Turkish heritage failing to become fully German.

The question, then, becomes how one reads such rhetoric: whether cultural “integration” is a valid cultural ideal, or whether the doublespeak on integration amounts to a sort of racist bad faith. Grindel accused Özil and fellow teammate Ilkay Gündogan, who also met with Erdogan, of “definitely not helping” the football association’s “integration work.” That criticism looks different in light of the history Özil’s letter cited: It seems unfair to criticize insufficient integration if you don’t actually believe that integration (and the multiculturalism that integration implies) can work in the first place. Cem Özdemir from the Green Party also criticized the Özil-Erdogan photograph as a “fatal contribution” for integration efforts, but this is a man who insisted last year that Germany’s “dominant culture” should be the constitution, after the conservative interior minister suggested defining German culture with a collection of maxims such as “We are not Burka.”

Grindel, who according to Özil’s statement, had wanted the player off the team immediately after the picture surfaced seems to be going by a tough rule for anyone to live up to: you must give me all you’ve got, but one mistake and you’re out. And while cozying up to an authoritarian is admittedly a bad look, that’s not a standard the non-Turkish-heritage players have to meet. When former team captain and current German FA ambassador Lothar Mätthaus recently posed with Vladimir Putin the protest was minimal compared to what Özil had to deal with.

Last week, I attended the trial of the group of Austrian students who hung the “Erdogan, bring home your Turks” banner across the Turkish Embassy in Vienna. The group is accused of stirring up xenophobic hatred; their defense lawyer claims that they are practicing “admissionable criticism.”

In one session, the judge asked a witness, a Kurdish man with a light southern Austrian accent whose pizzeria was vandalized with anti-Muslim stickers, what he thought about Erdogan. “Geh’bitte,” he replied: Get out. What about Turkish people who vote for Erdogan, the judge asked. “Ham,” he shot back. (“Go home.”) Everyone in the courtroom laughed. The judge smiled. The state attorney smiled. “Because you are not one of Erdogan’s Turks!” the defense lawyer cried jubilantly. Demanding that people with Turkish roots who support Erdogan be kicked out of Austria isn’t racist, he was arguing: It’s a universal criticism of integration.

Walking out of the hall, I asked one of the defendants what he thought of the day’s events. The young man, who has spoken at neo-Nazi rallies, shrugged: “He just said what we are saying.”