Reinhard Grindel is the president of the German Football Association, and clearly doesn’t like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan very much. The anger he displayed after a meeting in May between the Turkish president and Germany’s star midfielder Mesut Özil unleashed a huge row that culminated in Özil’s retire from the national squad yesterday.
It was not the most savvy of decisions by Özil perhaps, posing for a photograph with a divisive leader who is accused of leading Turkey down the path of autocracy, and who has compared the German government to Nazis. Yet while Grindel might think he is taking a stand against Erdoğan, the Turkish government has seized on the incident as evidence of its long-standing claim that Europe is hypocritical and racist, and never treats Turkey fairly.
“Where’s your tolerance? Your multiculturalism?” tweeted Erdoğan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin. Abdulhamit Gul, the justice minister, wrote: “I congratulate Mesut Özil who by leaving the national team has scored the most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism.” The pro-government Star newspaper described Özil’s resignation as “a national slap from Mesut to the neo-Nazis”.
Diasporas the world over find themselves in a tug-of-love between their “home” nation and their “country of origin”. In the Turkish-German context, a contentious Turkish president and the increasing menace of far-right politics in Europe have served to inflame a complicated situation. Divisive words hack away at the organic links between communities and across borders. Erdoğan has on many occasions called on diaspora Turks to integrate but not assimilate. “Assimilation? No. I have said this before and I’m saying it again – we don’t compromise our language, religion and culture,” he told an election rally in Cologne in 2014. Such words in turn fuel a far-right narrative in Europe that these people are insufficiently loyal.
It is not only in Europe that Turkish-speaking footballers have experienced difficulty with fitting in. Muzzy Izzet, a former Leicester City midfielder who was born in London to Turkish Cypriot parents, made the decision in 2000 to play for the Turkish national side. “I was always proud to play for Turkey. I knew what it meant to my dad, my family,” he wrote in his autobiography. But he also experienced loneliness and isolation from his Turkish teammates, feeling that “no matter how hard they tried, there was a chasm between this East End boy, a second-generation Turk, and them”.
Turkey can be strongly nationalistic and unforgiving to those seen as slighting the nation. When strict German laws on dual nationality forced Özil, as a 17-year-old, to give up his Turkish passport in order to play for Die Mannschaft, he was met with hostility. At the Turkish consulate with his dad, he recalls, the official “kept lambasting us with outrageous insinuations. For example, he ticked us off for not having ‘an ounce of pride’ and for not liking Turkey. Anybody leaving the Turkish community was a traitor. What nonsense!” Given that Özil was forced to endure that process to play for Germany, it must be particularly grating to hear some Germans questioning his loyalty.
Underneath the name-calling, the reality is that both German and Turkish football benefit from their shared links. Without Özil, Germany would have been deprived a cornerstone of the team that won the 2014 World Cup. The Turkish national team, in turn, relies heavily on its links to the diaspora, capitalizing on better training and development networks to plug holes in its own side. Of the Euro 2016 Turkey squad, about one-third of the 23 players were born abroad. “If Fifa passes a law saying players can only play in countries where they were developed, we’ll be screwed,” Ahmet Güvener, a former Turkish Football Federation official told me.
Özil epitomizes the migrant who doesn’t fit the mold. His parents are from the Black Sea town of Zonguldak, but grew up in Gelsenkirchen in western Germany. He is a superstar at Arsenal who tweets his response to a German-Turkish argument in English. The response of the hardliners on both sides reveals a symbiosis, as they feed off criticism of each other to isolate those caught in the middle. Both Germany and Turkey are similar in having persistent ideas of “race” and “blood” defining the nation.
Rather than listen to the shrill voices on both sides, we should pay more attention to the player himself. “Like many people my ancestry traces back to more than one country,” wrote Özil in his resignation message. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.”
John McManus is the author of Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football