It’s a sad sign of the times when Germany’s star footballer Mesut Özil feels the need to retire from the national team because of racist abuse, especially since one of his antagonists was the head of the football federation for the country that he represents.
The Arsenal midfielder, who grew up in Germany to Turkish parents, attracted ire last year because he accepted an invitation to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – during the same visit Erdogan met and had photographs taken with the Queen and Theresa May. Özil explained later that he did not endorse Erdogan’s autocratic rule, but went out of respect for the office of the president and his Turkish family. But since then, he says, he has been the target of racially abusive trolling and attacks, including, he alleges, from Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football federation.
Özil, who is a German-born German national and has loyally represented his country since 2009, was accused of betraying Germany when he met Erdogan, and was told that he had to take sides, the implication being that he had chosen the wrong one.
As a Turkish-born dual national with a British mother, this is the sort of dross I grew up hearing – even from members of my family and close friends.
“How can you not take sides! What would you do if Britain and Turkey went to war?” was one choice question I was constantly asked, from about the age of eight. Or, more mildly: “Who do you support when England play Turkey?” (Answer: both. It’s a win-win game. I used to wish that Turkey could do a bit better than the 8-0 drubbings they suffered against England at one time, but I didn’t mind who won. I was as excited by the Turks’ magnificent run in the 2002, when they reached the World Cup semi-final and won the third-place playoff, as I have been by England’s exploits this year.)
As I grew up, I was told repeatedly that I could never be a diplomat because I would always betray one side (not true: I have an old friend who is a dual national who now serves as a Turkish ambassador and has not to my knowledge betrayed anyone). I was told that I couldn’t represent either country in sport. I was told, when reporting on Turkey for The Times, that my English experience made me biased and naïve when it came to writing about the country of my birth, and accused of not understanding the country’s history – never mind that it had been shoved down my throat for years at school and had read numerous history books on it since, how could I possibly understand when I had foreign blood in my veins? Even at university in Britain, people questioned the validity of my two passports (reflecting my dual background) – how could I have the same rights in Britain as pure-blood, single passport people? The questioners were perfectly pleasant, just incredulous.
If you belong to two backgrounds, you are both in the ring and have a ringside seat. You are probably more able to see the good and the bad on both sides because you can compare and contrast from within. You can understand, yet you can be circumspect. You can understand patriotism, yet feel alienated by nationalism. You can be proud of the good, critical of the bad, you can integrate, yet you are naturally suspicious of nativism. Today, I’m not particularly proud of either of my countries, to be honest. When Brexit happened and everything began to go pear shaped in Turkey — a country that was becoming excitingly tolerant and modern in the first years of Erdogan’s rule — I despaired: “What’s happening to my people?”
I would often meet people with similar issues, if different backgrounds. My niece, for instance, who was born, like Özil, to a family of Gastarbeiter, or Guest Workers, spoke to me about how she was alienated in both countries – considered snobbish in Turkey and looked down upon in Germany. Even though German was her mother tongue and she completed most of her education there, she now can only travel there with a visa.
But that was some years ago. I had thought that, as more people from different backgrounds intermarried, dual heritage people had become more the norm and the understanding of the concept had grown. We are all of melded backgrounds now, I thought.
Yet if I hadn’t guessed from the recent rise of the far right (and, Oh God, the efforts by Steve Bannon to get funding for a pan-European movement of lovely people like him) the Özil incident illustrates that we are still far from full understanding. It shows that, when pushed, even the most tolerant-seeming environment can turn.
Here are the words of Özil, as he criticises Grindel: “People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be able to work in the largest football federation in the world that has players from dual-heritage families,” Özil said in a direct reference to Grindel. He has the backing of the anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out, which said in a statement: “Those who have driven him to consider international retirement should be ashamed of themselves and his case should encourage all of football to reflect on how the game treats footballers from mixed heritage backgrounds.”
Incredible, given the rich diversity of most football teams. Özil said that when he won (he was in the German World Cup winning team in 2014) he was considered a German and when he lost he was an immigrant. In today’s febrile climate, things may even be worse than countries turning on dual heritage players when they lose. France won the World Cup this year, yet even they had to put up with being labelled, in some quarters, as an “African team” for its multiracial players.
I used to find it shocking how quickly ethnic groups in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda turned on each other and committed atrocities when the atmosphere in these countries changed. Now, I feel I’m getting a glimpse of how that might happen.