Viewers of Germany’s World Cup match against Spain on Sunday were treated to a curious spectacle: a row of spectators in the stands holding up photos and drawings of former Germany men’s national team star Mesut Özil with their hands over their mouths. It was an apparent retort towards the national team’s protest against FIFA for preventing Germany (among several other teams) from wearing the OneLove armband at games.
The message: what about Özil? The former Arsenal FC star quit the national team following the 2018 World Cup and issued a blistering broadside at the DFB. “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose,” he wrote at the time in a statement that garnered widespread attention and sympathy — and also frustrating denials from the DFB of the player’s own stated experiences.
According to reporting from German outlet Bild, it was also an organized effort — featuring at least one participant who was given instructions but did not know what they were doing:
The 'protest' had to do with a rumour spread in the Arab world about Özil's exit from the German national team. Accordingly, it was thought that Özil left the national team because he spoke out against China's policy with the Muslim Uyghurs - a rumour that is simply wrong— Bayern & Germany (@iMiaSanMia) November 28, 2022
(The Athletic’s reporting on this, also well worth reading, clarifies that the majority of those holding the placards were locals.)
Muddying the waters is a common tactic employed to degrade activist efforts, but Özil’s story is one that deserves revisiting. And frankly, the history and attitudes of Western nations towards the Middle East cannot be neatly disentangled from the present context, either.
Özil’s plight within the DFB
The DFB and Özil’s former Germany teammates reacted to his retirement in ways that drew a sharp rebuke from the player’s camp. The player had been describing his experiences in the context of living as a minority within German society — something his teammates nor ex-coach seemed to understand at the time.
By the time then-DFB president Reinhard Grindel admitted he could have handled things differently, bridges were well past burned.
Özil’s comments on China’s treatment of Uighurs
It’s not readily apparent that the demonstrations raised this point at all, but Özil’s statements on Uighur persecution in China didn’t occur until over a year after his retirement from the German national team. And his fury at that time was directed at both his club — from which he had been exiled, and which declared it “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics” — and at Muslim nations, whom Özil charged with silence and complicity.
Time Magazine has named Qatar among the countries in the Middle East who “have detained or extradited Uighurs at China’s behest.” And The Times (via Middle East Eye) reported that the stadium where this year’s World Cup Final will be played was built by a Chinese construction film previously involved in the production of Uighur internment camps in China.
It’s not all straightforward. Qatar also withdrew its name in 2019 from a letter supporting China’s actions, citing a desire to “maintain a neutral stance.” But this October they cast a UN vote against discussion on China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The utility of universal principles
Özil’s warnings about his experiences of racism should strike a chord with many who have felt the same, and be cause for introspection for all of us who would like to strive for a better world.
Time has passed, and maybe things have changed with Özil’s ex-teammates — from Toni Kroos, who had called some of his allegations “nonsense” to Thomas Müller, who had insisted “there can be no talk of racism in sports or in the national team.” Perhaps this camp is different, or perhaps not — we needn’t be rosy-eyed.
But if the faults are still there and still ignored, what principle is served by pitting one anti-discrimination cause against another? Certainly not Özil’s. When he criticized Arsenal for their failure to support him, he said this:
It doesn’t matter what religion or colour you are — Muslim, Christian, Jew, Black, white or anything else. We are all the same...This isn’t politics...
In America, we saw George Floyd killed and the world spoke up to say Black Lives Matter, and that is correct. We are all equal and it’s a good thing that people fight against injustice...
But I wish people would have done the same for the Muslims because Arsenal have many Muslim players and fans as well, and it is important for the world to say that Muslim Lives Matter.
If we are to have stated anti-discrimination principles, let’s have at it: let’s openly examine all our failures, past and present, as well as our hypocrisies. There’s nothing to be afraid of and dialogue has the potential to be constructive. As both Özil then and Leon Goretzka now have said, some things transcend politics.
We ought to resist the urge to shut down the actions and the conversations, even if uncomfortable, even if they conflict with sporting or rooting interests — but we should also not be blind to what parties would prefer just that, and why.
Interested in a VERY in-depth review of Germany’s 1-1 draw with Spain? Then why not check out the latest episode of our podcast? We talk about everything from lineups, tactics, and individual performances, to a discussion about Bayern Munich at the World Cup overall. Listen to it below or on Spotify.
As always, we appreciate all the support!