As the editor of Bavarian Football Works, and both as a fan of Mesut Özil since his international debut and an admirer of Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, I feel deeply conflicted about the recent statements by the two most powerful figures in the club, and by extension two of the most powerful figures in all of German soccer.
To recapitulate their statements about Özil, in late July, in the immediate aftermath of Özil’s resignation from the German national team, Hoeness alleged that he was retiring “on the pretense of his allegedly poor treatment by the DFB,” when in fact Özil’s supposedly awful play “for years” was the real reason. Now, in comments to TZ and Sport Bild, Bayern CEO Rummenigge has claimed almost exactly the same thing:
Please: he wasn’t criticized because he is of Turkish descent. That’s a fairy tale that’s being told by his agents.
For Rummenigge, “the entire discussion about Mesut Özil [is] a phantom discussion. It [the criticism of Özil] has absolutely nothing to do with racism.” And Rummenigge likewise writes off Özil’s talent, describing him as “never a player that we thought about even just one percent. Never!”
In all honesty, I am disappointed that Hoeness and now also Rummenigge have spoken out, let alone in such a way. Özil is not Bayern’s player and the dispute between him and DFB president Reinhard Grindel is not Bayern’s fight. But on their own admission, both Hoeness and Rummenigge are angry or annoyed that Özil has alleged the DFB (specifically its president, Grindel) treated him differently in the aftermath of Germany’s World Cup failure because of his Muslim, Turkish background. Obviously, since I believe that there is some truth to Özil’s allegations, I disagree with them; be that as it may, I feel that the way in which they have publicly rejected Özil’s claims and ridiculed Özil as a player is a counterproductive and potentially harmful response.
The harshness of the reactions is particularly striking. Both Hoeness and Rummenigge describe the controversy as if Özil was criticized by the DFB for his performances on the pitch, but that is simply not the case. Neither national team manager Olivier Bierhoff in his comments to Die Welt (stating that the team might have been better off, had Özil been dropped — comments he subsequently retracted) nor Grindel in his own comments to Kicker (renewing his demand for a statement from Özil after Bierhoff had declared the case closed) said anything about Özil’s individual performance. Yet those comments were in essence the whole of the official post-World Cup criticism of Özil.
In the absence of any serious criticism of head coach Joachim Löw or the DFB itself, many interpreted those comments (reasonably, in my opinion) as an attempt to make Özil a scapegoat for Germany’s shocking exit (e.g. this article by the Associated Press).
Hoeness and Rummenigge have likewise said not a word about the serious mistakes made by Löw, who both included Özil on the team and started him in two of three matches. Their denigration of Özil the player, in particular Hoeness’s extraordinarily unprofessional remarks about Bayern’s alleged strategy of targeting of Özil in games against Arsenal, seem to be a case of sour grapes on the DFB’s behalf.
Another disturbing trend I have noticed in counterattacks on Özil, and which Rummenigge’s comments in particular reflect, is a tendency to dismiss Özil’s claims against Grindel on the grounds that they were allegedly written by his agent. Hence Rummenigge calls Özil’s allegations a “fairy tale” and proceeds to remark,
That’s something that’s increasingly annoying me anyway: more and more, the agents today are giving the statements and interviews. It’s sometimes like Fairy Tale Hour.
The argument reflects similar efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Özil’s allegations by portraying them as the product of an agent and thus somehow inherently false — “fremdgesteuert” (“steered by others”) in the words of Sport Bild’s Bayern Munich beat-writer Tobias Altschäffl, who wrote this when Özil’s statement first appeared:
Fernab der Inhalte ist an der dreiteiligen Özil-Offenbarungen die Art das Schlimme und verkörpert alles, was den heutigen Fußball so unsympathisch macht. Selbstgerecht, fremdgesteuert, Inszenierung der eigenen Marke. #Oezil @Arsenal @SPORTBILD @DFB_Team— Tobias Altschäffl (@altobelli13) July 23, 2018
Quite besides their content, the manner of the three-part Özil-revelations is what’s bad and embodies everything that makes modern soccer so unlikable. Self-righteous, steered-by-others, staging of one’s own brand.
These claims appear directed in particular at Dr. Erkut Sogut, who lambasted Hoeness in kind after the Bayern president’s remarks became public.
But such arguments about authorship overlook the fact that the statements are still Özil’s, published on his personal Twitter account, and signed by the player himself — no less so than the carefully-worded statement in response collectively authored by the presidential board of the DFB (at least 17 people, including Grindel and Bierhoff), the legitimacy of which no one has similarly questioned.
If it were a contract Özil had put his name on, neither Hoeness nor Rummenigge would have disputed Özil’s responsibility for whatever it contained, whether Özil’s agents or Bayern’s lawyers or PR department or any number of third parties had written it. It is disingenuous to dismiss Özil’s statements because he may or may not (only Özil knows!) have written every word. It doesn’t matter: Özil owns the statement. It’s his, and the agenda it represents is, of course, his own.
Özil’s total silence after his meeting with Erdogan and his incendiary message once he broke that silence — blasting Grindel rather than appeasing him — bear much of the blame for exacerbating a situation that could have been defused. But, in my view, reducing the scandal to a failure of “crisis management,” in Rummenigge’s words, suggests that differences over race, culture, or religion are something to be controlled rather than respected, and that falls far short of the lesson the DFB needs to learn right now.
The DFB is in real danger of learning nothing at all from the Özil scandal, because its leadership seems to be talking only to people like themselves — people like Hoeness and Rummenigge, who brush the topics of race and identity aside and disparage Özil as a player for good measure. What the DFB and observers like Bayern’s leadership should do is seek answers as to why communication between them and Özil deteriorated to the point that such an important veteran on the German national team would feel he could no longer represent Germany. That’s the real tragedy.
Of all the reactions to the affair, I thought former DFB president Theo Zwanziger’s captured this need best (Kicker):
I am deeply saddened by Mesut Özil’s decision. When conflicts occur, you must try incredibly quickly to resolve these conflicts with conversations. The DFB failed to do so before the World Cup for whatever reasons and now the process is in full swing again. Through mistakes of communication something has happened that should never happen in the case of immigrants: they should never feel like they are second-class Germans.
If you strip away the anger toward Grindel in Özil’s statement, what remains is that: a German asking, “why don’t people accept that I am German?”
In researching this piece, I stumbled across an article posted by the DFB in December 2014 titled “DFB von A bis Z: Integration” (“DFB from A to Z: Integration”). The lead picture shows Mesut Özil standing alongside Jerome Boateng, Mario Götze, and Sami Khedira before a game at the World Cup 2014. The same picture appears above this article. At the bottom, as a kind of coda to a long report on the DFB’s integration efforts, the article presents without comment “The Five Integration Messages” (“Die Fünf Integrationsbotschaften”). I think the DFB and Bayern’s leadership, and perhaps Özil himself, would do well to reread the first one, which I’ll translate here:
Integration starts with me!
Every individual, regardless of origin, age, or sex, is called upon to shape coexistence in Germany in a way consistent with human dignity. That also includes the strength to critically question one’s own certainties and standpoints.