“Politics and football don’t mix.” Ruud Gullit
There has notably been plenty of irony in the fallout of Germany’s catastrophic World Cup campaign. For the British audience, the use of the German word ‘schadenfreude’ went from indulgent irony to overused beyond parody and all the way back again in less than a day when Die Mannschaft crashed out 2-0 to a seemingly dead and buried South Korean team in their final group game. The game was painful for Germany and delightful for the British, undoubtedly, but something terrible has emerged from its ashes and the irony within it is far more nuanced but just as pronounced.
Mesut Özil has become embroiled in a racism row with the German FA (DFB) and the Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeneß, among others, that has soured beyond all rationality. The fact that Germany, the pre-tournament favourites, whose build-up was shrouded in concerns over racism, should now find itself intricately involved in a racism scandal is surely the most enjoyable irony of all, particularly given how bereft Russia itself seemed to be of any complaints of racist abuse during the tournament. The hapless hosts became national heroes while the reigning champions, whose reserve team dominated the Confederations Cup a year prior, fell apart and became something of a laughing stock – the world was turned upside down.
If you’re reading in Britain, you can smell the irony over the hot, humid air of our heatwave.
Özil, five-time German Player of Year, retired from international football citing the hatred and racism he had been on the receiving end of following their acrimonious exit and a lack of action from the German FA to protect him from it. Hoeneß reacted by dismissing Özil and his performances and seemed to defend those who had criticised him, if not those who had been openly racist towards him.
On a footballing level at least, Hoeneß has got it wrong. He claimed Özil had gone missing too often since the 2014 World Cup victory, but Özil has won the German Player of the Year twice since then and even at this World Cup created more chances per 90 minutes than any other player. Even then, it was on a footballing level that Özil insists he didn’t have a problem being criticised on, declaring himself an imperfect footballer in his own statements and his agent further compounding these sentiments: “Mesut […] accepts reasonable and fair criticism of his football, and deals with that as part of the job.”
“Reasonable and fair”
The key term here is ‘reasonable and fair’. One German politician called him a “goat-fucker” and a culture secretary told him to “piss off to Anatolia”. This is a man who, 4 years ago, was a talisman behind one of the finest teams in World Cup history, the first European team to win the World Cup on South American soil. He has 40 assists for the German national team and 23 goals, amassed over 9 years and a staggering 92 caps.
In Özil’s own words, he is “German when we win and an immigrant when we lose”. Perhaps the bar has been set so high generally by his performances since his break-out in a German shirt at the 2010 World Cup that anything below excellence is underwhelming. As such people blame him, so often the heartbeat of the team, for the failings of all 11 men on the pitch, and those of the coaching staff and substitutes too. It is fair, in balance, to propher that Özil may be being a hypochondriac and is playing the race card because he wants an easy way out of a sinking ship. More likely, is a cause and effect that lie deep within human nature and perhaps, before we gloat, we should consider some self-assessment before the schadenfreude spirals out of control.
We should be careful
Before the World Cup, The Sun newspaper ran a story on Raheem Sterling’s leg tattoo that split opinion in the wider world. They questioned the ethics of a submachine gun tattooed on his right calf, leading to questions about race and perception within the game. Would a young, successful, white male be harangued and hung out in public like this for the same tattoo? It is impossible to say, but one tends to think they would not. When Sterling missed a seemingly simple chance against Sweden, Twitter exploded, claiming he was “a waste of space”, “didn’t deserve to wear the shirt” etc etc.
Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Stan Collymore, Sol Campbell, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole are plenty of other names in the modern British game who have, to varying degrees, been hounded, harassed, vilified or even just made fun of under a degree of prejudice by varying factions of our own media, whether it be for their intelligence (or lack thereof), lifestyle choices, or otherwise. While plenty of readers will feel some of these names have not helped themselves, as Özil probably has not in this case, this situation with Özil and Germany is not unique to their game and as such we should be careful exactly how much we bask in the heat of their current predicament.
The key difference, in terms of success at international level, seems to be that Özil has won everything. While his British counterparts have generally been perennial underachievers over the last couple of decades, Özil has not and, as such, he has proof of his treatment varying from case to case, from success to failure. Social media, not professional relationships, has been the primary catalyst to all of this, of course.
Özil does not claim the DFB have been directly racist towards him, the implication is that they have not publicly supported him in light of ‘goat fucking’ racism as they should have done. In a similar way, The Sun weren’t being openly racist towards Sterling, indeed his ethnicity isn’t brought into the debate, but the undertones seemed to be there. As Özil was rudely being told to go back to Arabia, vile and racist complaints were made about Sterling on social media following ‘tattoo-gate’ and when he seemed to be underperforming or missing easy chances for the national side. The newspaper has not had a real chance to laud him as a hero yet, so we can’t see the scales tipping but Sterling should enjoy it if it comes to pass.
Hopefully, the young and talented Jamaican-born Sterling can one day win a major tournament for England and silence his critics, silence those who claim he isn’t ‘really English’ or ‘English enough’ or ‘worthy of the shirt’. Perhaps then, if he doesn’t, he too will feel that there nothing is left to prove and he will retire from the national team. You could hardly blame him in truth. Unless a player achieves everything, he will be criticised and people will find anything they can to use against them: from who they had a photograph with recently, to their ethnicity, intelligence and beyond.
While it’s fun to poke fun at the failings of others, perhaps if we don’t appreciate the talent of our best players, we will soon find ourselves without them, particularly if they find the glory our nation temporarily went catatonic at the prospect of.
None of us, after all, expect to go to work every day and be on the end of the sort of abuse our players are subjected to every day, racist or otherwise. So why should Özil, why should Sterling, why should anyone else?