No one can pretend that Mesut Özil had a good World Cup. Though his ability is not in question, his form in a listless Arsenal side has been patchy in the season past. He played 90 minutes in the opening defeat to Mexico, taking plenty of flak for his efforts to challenge Hirving Lozano before he slammed home the decisive goal.
The obvious question – why Mesut Özil of all players was the last line of cover – went unasked by many, but Özil has become something of a Marmite-player, his languid manner and seemingly ‘casual’ approach to defensive duties winding up fans and ex-pros who prefer ‘grittier’ performers, so his embarrassment at the feet of Mexico’s young winger was an opportunity to air well-rehearsed positions rather than look at bigger issues with Germany’s team.
But this assumes the anger directed at him is solely about his performances on the pitch. It’s not.
A sizable chunk of fans, pundits and press, and even the German team PR manager Oliver Bierhoff, mused that perhaps Die Mannschaft should’ve shifted the Arsenal playmaker and İlkay Gündoğan out of their squad prior to Russia 2018 because of a misjudgement on their part when they visited with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a trip to London.
With a PR man like Bierhoff, who needs critics, eh?
— ITV London (@itvlondon) May 15, 2018
Even Steffen Effenberg, a man sent home in disgrace from USA ’94, had the nerve to call for both to be ejected from the squad, on the basis that it takes a national embarrassment to spot one we must presume.
Not only did the pair pose for photographs with the burgeoning autocrat before Turkey’s general election last month, the Man City midfielder wrote ‘To my president, with my respects,’ on the shirt he presented, a message that angered many in Germany, who thought it cast doubt on the dedication of two players of Turkish descent who have 119 German senior caps between them.
Germany’s central creative force for the main part of a decade has now announced he’ll no longer play for the national team having been lumbered with the responsibilty for his national side’s wrongs in Russia.
The temptation to conclude the ensuing outrage impacted on the players involved and wider squad has been irresistible for many, and isn’t unreasonable. Gündoğan endured a torrid hour versus Sweden having replaced the injured Sebastian Rudy, while Özil was dropped for that game but started both defeats, playing as though he ‘had the handbrake on’, in the words of Arsene Wenger.
But to read the German failure purely through the lens of this controversy is to ignore the side’s poor form long before the two midfielders met the Turkish premier – Germany enjoyed one win in their six friendlies prior to the tournament, beating Saudi Arabia 2-1, and they lost to Austria just weeks before the World Cup. It also glosses over serious questions around Jogi Löw’s loyalty to players who looked past it a few years ago.
Even if it were true that this hubbub hurled the squad into turmoil, that reflects as badly on the other players, staff and wider DFB setup than it does on the City and Arsenal stars.
The situations are different, but it’s worth comparing how the Swedish side rallied around Jimmy Durmaz when he was blamed and racially abused for their loss to Germany in the group stage with the lack of action on the DFB’s part as momentum built around this scapegoating.
If some within the German team didn’t like what they did – and Erdoğan’s regime ought to have given both players pause for thought beforehand – professionalism should’ve trumped personal views. Experienced pros know how and when to suck it up.
In his statement, posted to twitter on Sunday, Özil placed responsibilty for much of the controversy on the head of DFB Reinhard Grindel, and there will surely be consequences for those who mishandled it from the start.
And there’s a wider issue too.
The Turkish community is the largest ethnic minority in Germany, but, despite the German government encouraging mass immigration from the country since the 1960s, until the nineties it was not possible for a Turkish German to become a full German citizen even if they were born in the country.
Citizenship rules have been relaxed since, but current laws still mean that many from minority backgrounds, Özil and Gündoğan among them, are faced with difficult questions about their identity, questions that are handled better in other diverse societies because dual-citizenship is accommodated more readily than in Germany.
“The intelligent people of this country demand tolerance. And the others should shut up,” Jurgen Klopp said this week, providing some perspective on the situation.
“They were not very well advised in this matter. Older, more experienced people should have helped them there, but we should not forget that the two of them have Turkish roots even though they grew up here in Germany.”
Klopp is right. The reaction since the Erdoğan meeting and World Cup reeks. Elements within Germany have sat quietly during the best years of Özil’s career, maybe even celebrated a World Cup triumph to which he, as well as several other children of immigrants, were central.
Now they say ‘he’s not really German,’ because of his background and a lapse of judgement? It’s absurd to suggest his loyalty to the German national side suddenly disappeared because of one dumb photo op.
Özil’s style of play irks many and makes him an easy target for criticism when the team does badly, but his quality and contribution for Germany over the years is undeniable. Those who doubt his credentials now say more about their own attitudes than any ‘hang-dog’ expression or ‘slumped’ shoulders say about Özil.