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Mesut Ozil was never going to be German enough for many fans of Germany

A bad photo with the Turkish president was all Germany needed to remind Ozil, a son of immigrants, that he didn’t belong

Korea Republic v Germany: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Mesut Ozil’s statement announcing his retirement from the Germany national team ended on a note that can easily resonate with immigrants and children of immigrants everywhere.

“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Ozil is writing about the “exceptional immigrant”, the idea that burdens immigrants with having to constantly be spectacular in order to have the same respect afforded to others for simply existing. It’s dignity based on productivity, not humanity. The trap of the exceptional immigrant is that when immigrants stop being exceptional, they can be dehumanized again.

Here is the conclusion:

“In the eyes of [Germany Football president Reinhard] Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different’. I received the ‘Bambi Award’ in 2010 as an example of successful integration to German society, I received a ‘Silver Laurel Leaf’ in 2014 from the Federal Republic of Germany, and I was a ’German Football Ambassador’ in 2015. But clearly, I am not German.. .?

Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue. By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”

He then went on to give examples of the bigotry that he suffers on a constant basis, which he feels has nothing to do with his performances, or a picture he took with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, before the World Cup (more on that shortly).

Ozil wrote that a German politician, Bernd Holzhauer, called him a “goatfucker”. Ozil says that Werner Steer, chief of German theater, told him to “piss off to Anatolia.” He wrote that after his performance against Sweden, a German fan told him, “Ozil, fuck off you Turkish shit, piss off you Turkish pig!” He also called the media for their role in choosing who to attack, citing that Lothar Matthaus, an honorary German captain and ambassador for the national team, met with and took a picture with Vladimir Putin, yet there was silence from the same papers and websites that were quick to pile on him for posing with Erdoğan.

To Ozil, the bigoted attitudes are also reflected in the way that DFB President Reinhard Grindel treated him, belittling him and essentially trying to scapegoat him for Germany’s failure at the World Cup:

“Since the end of the World Cup, Grindel has come under much pressure regarding his decisions before the tournament started, and rightly so. Recently, he has publicly said I should once again explain my actions and puts me at fault for the poor team results in Russia, despite telling me it was over in Berlin. I am speaking now not for Grindel, but because I want to. I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly. I know that he wanted me out the team after the picture, and publicised his view on Twitter without any thinking or consultation…”

To drive home his case against Grindel, Ozil brought up Grindel’s own words and political history:

“To you, Reinhard Grindel, I am disappointed but not surprised by your actions. In 2004 whilst you were a German member of Parliament, you claimed that “multiculturalism is in reality a myth [and] a lifelong lie” whilst you voted against legislation for dual-nationalities and punishments for bribery, as well as saying that Islamic culture has become too ingrained in many German cities. This is unforgivable and unforgettable.”

We should talk about the picture with Erdoğan. Ozil’s supposed intention with that picture was always going to be in contradiction with the reality of the world.

Ozil’s explanation for the picture is that he respects the office of the President of Turkey. He argues that the picture was him taking pride in his Turkish identity, in the country of his parents, rather than supporting Erdoğan and his repressive politics. If that is true, then Ozil was being naive at the least, and obtuse at the most.

Respect for the office is not an adequate explanation or apology for taking a photo with a man who is responsible for heinous and repressive actions. Especially when that picture can and did get used as right-wing propaganda. If Ozil wasn’t in support of Erdoğan, then he needed to be more careful, because regardless of his thought of the picture as apolitical, that’s not the way the world works. Neutrality is a myth. Emre Can, another German player of Turkish descent, had the same opportunity to be in the picture and declined it.

The problem with the criticism that followed after the picture, as Ozil explains, is that it was instantly colored by the hate towards him. In the same way that a lot of supposed on-field criticism of him for Germany also is affected by what people think of him as the child of Turkish immigrants. It was always going to be near impossible to separate the backlash against a stupid picture from the sinister suggestions that he isn’t a legitimate German. It doesn’t matter if the whole team does badly, it’s Ozil who takes the brunt of the blame. And the picture with Erdoğan, as Ozil wrote, provided the perfect cover for everyone who has always hated him to hide behind.

The bigotry that followed the fallout over the picture — of the fact that he’s always singled out when the German team does badly — are proof of the anxious life that even the most exceptional immigrants live. Underneath the praise and awards given to them during times of success, they’re still considered outsiders. Outsiders that always have to prove that they belong. And if they make one mistake, it can all be taken away.

Ozil is not alone in the anxiety that his identity makes him a radical figure and a lightning rod. As much as the diversity of the French team was championed because they won the World Cup, it wasn’t that long ago that the same diversity was seen as the problem when they crashed out of the 2010 World Cup. Romelu Lukaku of Belgium also has the same problem: “When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

The underlying idea behind this denial of people like Ozil seems to be a stupid conception of what identity is and can be. It’s a willful and fearful blindness to what a person is. It’s cover for bigots, lest they have to confront the insecurity over the fact that much of what they are comes down to luck of being born in a particular place and looking a certain way.

The denial comes from the thought that a German, Belgian, Frenchman, American, has to fit a mold in order to be legitimate. That they have to look a certain way, believe certain things, and behave in a particular manner.

So even though Ozil was given the “Bambi Award” in 2010 as an example of successful integration into German society, it did nothing to change the opinion of those who never saw him as truly German. In their eyes, nothing ever will. All his success in 2010 with Germany did was to quiet them for some time, and they waited for him to fail to resurface.

The picture with Erdoğan, the failure of the national team at the World Cup, created the perfect environment for people who never considered Ozil as German to tell him to “piss off to Anatolia.”

The truly sad part of all of this is that with Ozil leaving, people like Holzhauer, Steer and Grindel get their wish. They’ve created an environment that’s so toxic that he can’t even be properly rebuked for naivety or idiocy without it becoming racist and in turn have forced him to remove himself completely. So now the German team looks more like how they think it should, without someone who forces them to consider that their view of identity is simplistic.

Unfortunately that’s how racism is effective. More than the visceral hatred that comes from insults, it is the creation of an unbearable situation that forces individuals to live in anxiety, to marginalize themselves, and eventually to be forced to leave when they feel abandoned and denied. It’s not just the fallout from taking the picture with Erdoğan that forced Ozil to retire, but as he wrote, it was the constant reminder from the media, German fans, the German federation and people online that he wasn’t wanted and accepted. The picture, as stupid as it was, also gave his critics the perfect weapon to reinforce their denial of him.