Football Fancy, World Cup 2018: Dear Mesut Özil...
Photo credit: Instagram @m10_official
Dear Mesut Özil,
You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, yet I do feel like I know you at least a little bit, if only from watching you play football over the past years.
See, during this World Cup, I am writing a column about things that happen on and off the pitch, as I have always done during major tournaments over the last couple of years. In 2014, it was fun to sit in front of my laptop; it was easy coming up with new topics to discuss while watching Germany progress from one round to the next until you finally lift the trophy.
This year, of course, is a different story.
After watching the quarterfinals, I initially wanted to write about the fact that this World Cup has ironically become a European-only affair, and that – with the exception of France – it’s mostly “smaller” teams that now have the chance to achieve football glory, which is quite a refreshing development.
I was ready to move on from the pain of Germany’s group stage exit, but it seems almost impossible. Every day, be it in the newspaper, online, on TV or the radio, journalists, so-called experts, fans and those who are in charge keep the endless debate alive.
More often than not, they point their finger at one single person: you.
This makes me sad, but more than that, it makes me angry. Let me explain. I am German-Indonesian, which means that my skin is darker; my hair is brown, almost black. Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to belong; I didn’t want to be different from the other kids in my school, but of course I knew that I was.
“Why are you so brown?” – “How come your German is so good? Because you are clearly not from here?” – “Mulatta!” – “Foreign brat!” – “Go back to Italy where you came from!”
These are only some of the things I heard on a regular basis from childhood into my teenage years. Don’t get me wrong: all in all, I think my youth was quite wonderful, but the question of identity kept me company throughout my whole life. The sentiment of being different, the sense of not belonging – it stays with you.
At the age of 28, I moved to Indonesia, the birth country of my mother, where I stayed for more than 11 years. In Indonesia, I am also a foreigner, but it never seemed to bother anyone. On the contrary: when people inquired about my origins, they did so with genuine interest and healthy curiosity. Indonesia is, of course, not perfect either (no country is), but staying there helped me to accept, embrace and cherish my “being different”. I began to understand that it’s OK to grow up in not only one but two cultures, and that this feeling of “neither here nor there” is part of the package.
As a lifelong football fan – a passion I have inherited from both my father and my mother – I was always happily following the Bundesliga and anticipating major tournaments, cheering for Germany. When the national team suddenly had players like you, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira in the line up, I felt even more connected to Germany – players with a darker skin and a migrant background now represented my home country on the pitch as well, how wonderful! When you won the World Cup in 2014, all was good and right – at least, in my perhaps somewhat naïve worldview.
Fast-forward to 2018, and suddenly it seems that we are moving backwards. To make this clear: I thought your photo with Erdogan was a disaster and rightly prompted a strong backlash. But everything that happened since has been equally agonizing.
Yes, maybe you should have issued a statement, but my guess is that any explanation from your side wouldn’t be received well anyway. For many people, this story was the perfect excuse to finally voice their right-wing populist views on public. The racial abuse fluttering through (social) media was downright nasty. I have tried to argue with some of these people online and was called an Erdogan supporter (and much worse) myself. I simply can’t stand people who say, Mesut Özil is a football player and therefore automatically stands in the spotlight – criticism, including racist incidents and comments, come with the territory. The first part may be true, but racism should never, never, never ever be OK. Only people who have never experienced racism themselves could say this. They don’t know how it feels to be judged, ridiculed, mocked and attacked simply for looking different.
Worse, now that the World Cup has ended prematurely for Germany, you have been turned into the scapegoat. Never mind that you were one of the better players, never mind that a football team on the pitch consists of eleven players, not just one – no, never mind all that. It’s just easier to blame the Turkish guy who coquets with dictators and doesn’t sing the national anthem (what the hell is that discussion about, anyway? You are a football player, not a singer, for fuck’s sake).
If that wasn’t bad enough, your own team manager and the DFB president have now turned against you as well. Quite frankly, this makes me sick. First, they swept the whole issue under the carpet. Now, when they face criticism and are asked to take responsibility, they throw you under the bus. How despicable! And Oliver Bierhoff’s lukewarm effort to backpedal was as believable as Donald Trump's claim to have written best-selling books.
Where is the outrage from your fellow teammates? Where was the outrage when Lothar Matthäus posed on a photo with Putin, when he was the one who screamed the loudest about your misconduct?
Dear Mesut Özil, I think you should retire from the national team. Not because you don’t play well enough anymore, not because you should give in to the voices in Germany that demand it. Do it for your sake. You are World Champion already, and nobody can take that away from you. But this whole mess? It’s not worth it. They – the populists, the people in charge who have no idea how to lead responsibly, the so-called fans – are not worth it.
In the spirit of Sweden’s national team that swiftly and strongly responded to the racist abuse of Jimmy Durmaz as a collective, I am standing behind you, Mesut, screaming at the top of my lungs: Fuck Racism!
Katrin (with the brown skin)