It was the big early shock of the 2018 World Cup, and something that many of us thought we would never see: the capitulation of Germany in the group stages.
For so long, they had been a ruthlessly brilliant footballing machine, reaching at least the quarter-final stage of nine consecutive World Cups, racking up three wins in the process, including the previous tournament in Brazil in 2014 where they famously destroyed the hosts 7-1 in the semi-final.
But this time, they were hugely out-of-sorts, losing to Mexico in the first game, requiring an injury time winner against Sweden to stay in the tournament and then finally, painfully exiting against South Korea in the final game, who scored two breakaway goals to triumph as a lethargic Germany chased the win they needed.
The whole team failed to impress, but one player seemed to suffer the brunt of criticism: Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil.
Now, the 29-year-old has sensationally retired from international football, after accusing some German FA officials of racism, as well as lashing out at sponsors and the press who he claims deliberately misinterpreted his controversial pre-tournament meeting and photograph taken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The photograph was taken in London in May and led to some questioning his loyalty to the German side, with Germany team boss Oliver Bierhoff among those suggesting he should have been dropped.
Ozil was born in Gelsenkirchen in the former West Germany in 1988 and is a third-generation Turkish-German. He is also a practicising Muslim.
And in a long, but highly articulate and hard-hitting statement, he explained his reasons for quitting the German side.
“For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies,” he wrote.
“In fact, we spoke about the same topic that we do every time we have met - football - as he too was a player in his youth.”
He went on to criticise the German media for turning on him, and for sponsors for abandoning him. He also criticised his old school in Gelsenkirchen, Berger-Feld, who cancelled a trip he was planning to make to support a project he was funding, “where immigrant children, children from poor families and any other children can play football together and learn social rules for life,” as they were worried about the negative coverage it would attract.
However, his harshest words were reserved for those in the DFB, the German Football Association, in particular certain individuals who he directly accused of racism.
“The treatment I have received from the DFB (German Football Association) and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted and think what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.
“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. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent.
“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.
“I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t. The decision has been extremely difficult to make because I have always given everything for my teammates, the coaching staff and the good people of Germany.
“When high-ranking DFB officials treat me as they did, disrespect my Turkish roots and selfishly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough. That is not why I play football, and I will not sit back and do nothing about it. Racism should never, ever be accepted.”
Ozil’s record for Germany is nothing short of superb, with 23 goals and 40 assists in 92 appearances, while winning the national team player of the year award on five separate occasions. He won the World Cup in 2014 and helped his side to three other major tournament semi-finals.
Many people were supportive of his decision and motives:
Meanwhile, the DFB and the German media will be forced to ask some hard questions of themselves.
Here is Ozil’s statement in full:
Meeting President Erdogan
The past couple of weeks have given me time to reflect, and time to think over the events of the last few months. Consequently, I want to share my thoughts and feelings about what has happened.
Like many people, my ancestry traces back to more than one country. Whilst I grew up in Germany, my family background has its roots firmly based in Turkey. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish. During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day.
In May, I met President Erdogan in London, during a charitable and educational event. We first met in 2010 after he and Angela Merkel watched the Germany vs. Turkey match together in Berlin. Since then, our paths have crossed a lot of times around the globe. I’m aware that the picture of us caused a huge response in the German media, and whilst some people may accuse me of lying or being deceitful, the picture we took had no political intentions.
As I said, my mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies. In fact, we spoke about the same topic that we do every time we have met - football - as he too was a player in his youth.
Although the German media have portrayed something different, the truth is that not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today. For me, it didn’t matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President. Having respect for political office is a view that I’m sure both the Queen and Prime Minister Theresa May share when they too hosted Erdogan in London. Whether it had been the Turkish or the German President, my actions would’ve been no different.
I get that this may be hard to understand, as in most cultures the political leader cannot be thought of as being separate from the person. But in this case, it is different. Whatever the outcome would’ve been in this previous election, or the election before that, I would have still taken the picture.
Media and sponsors
I know that I am a footballer who has played in arguably the three toughest leagues in the world. I’ve been fortunate to receive great support from my teammates and coaching staff whilst playing in the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League. And in addition, throughout my career, I’ve learnt to deal with the media.
A lot of people talk about my performances - many applaud and many criticise. If a newspaper or pundit finds fault in a game I play in, then I can accept this - I’m not a perfect footballer and this often motivates me to work and train harder. But what I can’t accept, are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.
Certain German newspapers are using my background and photo with President Erdogan as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause. Why else did they use pictures and headlines with my name as a direct explanation for defeat in Russia?
They didn‘t criticise my performances. They didn‘t criticise the team‘s performances, they just criticised my Turkish ancestry and respect for my upbringing. This crosses a personal line that should never be crossed, as newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me.
What I also find disappointing are the double standards that the media has. Lothar Matthaus (an honorary German national team captain) met with another world leader a few days back, and received almost no media criticism. Despite his role with the DFB (German national team), they have not asked him to publicly explain his actions and he continues to represent the players of Germany without any reprimand. If the media felt that I should have been left of the World Cup squad, then surely he should be stripped of his honorary captaincy? Does my Turkish heritage make me a more worthy target?
I’ve always thought that a ‘partnership’ infers support, both in the good times and also during tougher situations. Recently, I planned to visit my former school Berger-Feld in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, along with two of my charitable partners. I funded a project for one year where immigrant children, children from poor families and any other children can play football together and learn social rules for life.
However, days before we were scheduled to go, I was abandoned by my so-called ‘partners’, who no longer wanted to work with me at this time. To add to this, the school told my management that they no longer wanted me to be there at this time, as they ‘feared the media” due to my picture with President Erdogan, especially with the “right-wing party in Gelsenkirchen on the rise”. In all honesty, this really hurt. Despite being a student of theirs back when l was younger. I was made to feel unwanted and unworthy of their time.
In addition to this I was renounced by another partner. As they are also a sponsor of the DFB, l was asked to take part in promotional videos for the World Cup. Yet after my picture with President Erdogan they took me out of the campaigns and cancelled all promotional activities that were scheduled. For them it was no longer good to be seen with me and called the situation ‘crisis management’.
This is all ironic because a German Ministry declared their products have illegal and unauthorized software devices in them, which puts customers at risk. Hundreds of thousands of their products are getting recalled. Whilst I was being criticised and asked to justify my actions by the DFB, there was no such official and public explanation demanded of the DFB sponsor. Why? Am i right in thinking this is worse than a picture with the President of my family‘s country? What does the OPE have to say about all this?
As I said before, ‘partners’ should stick with you in all situations. Adidas, Beats and Big Shoe have been extremely loyal and amazing to work with in this time. They rise above the nonsense created by the German press and media, and we carry out our projects in a professional manner that I really enjoy being part of.
During the World Cup, I worked with Big Shoe and helped get 23 young children life-changing surgeries in Russia, which I have also done previously in Brazil and Africa. This for me is the most important thing that I do as a football player, yet the newspapers find no space to raise awareness about this sort of thing.
For them, me being booed or taking a picture with a President is more significant then helping children get surgeries worldwide. They too have a platform to raise awareness and funds, but choose not to do so.
Arguably the issue that has frustrated me the most over the past couple of months has been the mistreatment from the DFB, and in particular the OPE President Reinhard Grindel. After my picture with President Erdogan l was asked by Joachim Low to cut short my holiday and go to Berlin and give a joint statement to end all the talk and set the record straight.
Whilst I attempted to explain to Grindel my heritage, ancestry and therefore reasoning behind the photo, he was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion.
Whilst his actions were patronising, we came to agree that the best thing to do was to concentrate on football and the upcoming World Cup. This is why l did not attend the OPE media day during the World Cup preparations. I knew journalists discussing politics and not football would just attack me, even though the whole issue was deemed to be over by Oliver Bierhoff in a TV interview he did before the Saudi Arabia game in Leverkusen.
During this time, I also met with the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Unlike Grindel, President Steinmeier was professional and actually was interested in what I had to say about my family, my heritage and my decisions. I remember that the meeting was only between myself, Ilkay and President Steinmeier, with Grindel being upset that he wasn’t allowed inside to boost his own political agenda.
I agreed with President Steinmeier that we would release a joint statement about the matter, in another attempt to move toward and focus on football. But Grindel was upset that it wasn’t his team releasing the first statement, annoyed that Steinmeier‘s press office had to take lead on this matter.
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, but Joachim Low and Oliver Bierhoff stood up for me and backed me.
In the eyes of 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?
Grindel’s opinions can be found elsewhere too. I was called by Bernd Holzhauer (a German politician) a “goat-f***er” because of my picture with President Erdogan and my Turkish background. Furthermore, Werner Steer (Chief of German Theatre) told me to “piss off to Anatolia”, a place in Turkey where many immigrants are based.
As I have said before, criticising and abusing me because of family ancestry is a disgraceful line to cross, and using discrimination as a tool for political propaganda is something that should immediately result In the resignation of those disrespectful individuals. These people have used my picture with President Erdogan as an opportunity to express their previously hidden racist tendencies, and this is dangerous for society.
They are no better than the German fan who told me after the game against Sweden “Ozil, verpiss Dich Du scheiss TiirkensauJ’iirkenschwein hau ab’ or in English “Ozil, f**k off you Turkish s**t, p*** off you Turkish pig!‘
I don’t want to even discuss the hate mail, threatening phone calls and comments on social media that my family and I have received. They all represent a Germany of the past, a Germany not open to new cultures, and a Germany that I am not proud of. I am confident that many proud Germans who embrace an open society would agree with me.
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.
The treatment l have received from the OPE and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten. People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has many players from dual-heritage families. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent.
It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events. I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect. I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don‘t. This decision has been extremely difficult to make because I have always given everything for my teammates, the coaching staff and the good people of Germany. But when high-ranking DFB officials treat me as they did, disrespect my Turkish roots and selfishly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough. That is not why I play football, and I will not sit back and do nothing about it.
Racism should never, ever be accepted.