Double standards plague all sides in Özil scandal
No one in the controversy that has emerged from Mesut Özil’s decision to quit the German national team comes out looking good. His now ill-judged photo-op with authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led to racist slurs against the Arsenal footballer, and a media storm badly managed by German soccer authorities.
Özil, with his energetic, intelligent technique, is an idol for all fans of the game, not just Turkish immigrants. But now he looks like a wounded bird, dismayed and mournful. One can see how deeply he was hurt reading his press release that said, "racism should never ever be accepted".
The racist social media attacks that followed his photo-op with Erdoğan could both be the source of his pain, and the cause of his refusal to accept that taking that picture was a mistake. It is quite difficult to understand the issue without taking a look at three dimensions that are mostly independent of each other, but turned into a cocktail following the pictures with Erdoğan. None of these issues is new. We have been talking about them for years.
Özil's photo-op with Erdoğan is a case of an excellent footballer allowing himself to be exploited by a politician who has become increasingly autocratic and ordered a crackdown on opponents that has seen tens of thousands jailed.
Leaving the German national football team is not the only cost Özil is paying. The stock value of the Özil brand collapsed because he did not see the risk of being associated with Erdoğan.
But it is not only Özil's fault, his managers and his agents also did not see the possible results. Özil should look at his marketing specialists like Erkut Söğüt, and maybe shake up his media team. Such a shake-up is not only vital for Özil as a symbol, but also for the future of his brand. If he had not made such a mistake, he would not be losing his contract with a world brand like Mercedes, a company led by a CEO born in Turkey.
But the main issue is not losing his advertising commission. It seems the main issue that hurts him genuinely are the racist social media attacks. The criticism, since the day the photo was published, slowly became more racist than political.
One could criticise Özil for posing with Erdoğan and ask him about press freedom, detained journalists, or human rights abuses in Turkey. One could reprimand him for his indifference towards the rise of despotism and discrimination in Turkey. That would be fair criticism.
But that is not what happened. Özil was targeted by racist, anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim, xenophobic groups. Özil was entirely justified in complaining about racist insults from German politicians, officials and public figures, such as the head of the German Theatre in Munich Werner Steer, who said Özil should “p*** off back to Anatolia".
Özil's feelings are not deceiving him. Both in Germany, and in Europe anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim, xenophobic and racist sentiments are on the rise. The Özil controversy has also made it clear that these feelings are spreading across society. This is the central theme of Özil's statement, and the issue at the core of his disappointment.
Özil was born in Germany and shaped by German culture and discipline. He said he used to wear German national football shirt “with such pride and excitement". The footballer has in the past also been the target of racist attacks in Turkey from those who said he was more German than Turkish.
Özil is also justified in his criticism of the third political aspect of the incident, the German Football Association (DFB).
The DFB expressed its sensitivity to the photo-op very clearly, but its attempts at damage control were weak. Its members ignored racist attacks against Özil and some even tried to blame him for the national team's failure in the World Cup.
Özil heaped blame on DFB President Rheinhard Grindel, a former member of parliament. Der Spiegel also pointed out that some 30 percent of the younger generation in Germany is of immigrant origin, but commented the DFB and national team seem to be ignorant of this fact.
Grindel has form. In a 2013 Bundestag speech, Grindel said there are more German children in pre-schools in the morning and more foreign children in the afternoon; the implication being that immigrants are lazy.
Özil identifies a double standard in Germany; when another national player praised Putin it did not cause much public debate. Özil has a point when he says "my friends Lukas Podolski or Miroslav Klose were never Polish-German, yet I am Turkish-German. Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I am a Muslim?".
But if Özil showed the same sensitivity about the situation in Turkey, he could easily see that Erdoğan and Grindel are very similar; one stands for segregation, discrimination and exclusion of minorities in Turkey, the other one in Germany.