The Erdogan photos, a world cup debacle, Özil’s retirement and a debate about everyday racism in Germany. The Özil case polarised a nation. Chronicle of a fateful summer.
The Erdogan photos, a world cup debacle, Özil’s retirement and a debate about everyday racism in Germany. The Özil case polarised a nation. Chronicle of a fateful summer.
Written together with Andreas Bock, Translation: Carl Gregs
German version here/ Deutsche Version hier
Mesut Özil’s villa is situated in Highgate, a posh north-London suburb. Yet, despite its alleged cost of several million pounds, the exterior is rather modest. Red brick walls, plain white porch and window frames – English understatement. A big name in the English capital, one can still live in peace here.
The hallway, from which a spiral staircase leads up to the first floor, is lined by countless frames, all showing the same picture: a flamingo. “They came with the frames when I first bought them“ explained Özil during our visit for a piece in 2016. His friends from Gelsenkirchen were in the living room on the playstation. Özil slipped into the Arsenal-shirt which the photographer had handed him. The shoot took over half an hour, but Özil kept his calm. Kit on, smile, now one in casual clothes, look pensive. He answered all questions; his demeanour reserved but always friendly. All questions but one that is – when asked about the location of his birthday party that night he pretended as if he hadn’t heard the question, retreated through the big door to the living room and didn’t come back.
While these events date back two years, they nonetheless help us better understand the now 29-year-old professional footballer. On the one hand he wanted to remain truly undisturbed with his friends, yet he didn’t want to appear impolite either. So he simply disappeared, almost as if it wouldn’t show. As if this wasn’t about him at all. And should there be any further questions? That’s what his agent was standing by for all along.
On 13th May 2018, Mesut Özil retreated from enquiries once again. It was on this day, that him and fellow Premier League Pros Ilkay Gündogan und Cenk Tosun had their photograph taken with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The picture resulted in quite possibly the greatest upheaval surrounding a German footballer in recent history; the last to have caused a stir of such proportion being Toni Schumacher and his bad-boy book „Anpfiff“ (wordplay using the double meaning of both “kickoff“ and “bollocking“). It developed into a political issue polarising the nation. The bone of contention – had Özil let himself be exploited by an autocrat? “Özil and Gündogan’s rotten propaganda“ read the Bild headline.
Later, following Germany’s defeat to South Korea in Kazan, Özil was quickly made out to be the main culprit. Reports of the sporting humiliation were mainly illustrated with him. Meanwhile, large parts of the public criticised the German FA and its officials, who had remained silent rather than protected their player from the far-right’s incessantly racist bellows. The chancellor, home secretary Horst Seehofer, the AfD, the Linke – everyone weighed in. After Özil had announced his retirement from international football, Erdogan himself proclaimed: “I kiss his eyes“.
Manager Oliver Bierhoff and DFB president Reinhard Grindel didn’t have a clear line.
In September 2018, both the affair surrounding Özil and the ensuing societal controversies still haven’t been fully reappraised. National players, DFB-officials, agents, peers and friends of Özil – most of them only want to discuss the fatal footballing summer off the record. National team coach Joachim Löw, manager Oliver Bierhoff, and DFB president Reinhard Grindel weren’t available for comment. „Onwards and upwards“, we were told. Yet, so many questions remain unanswered. How did the photo with Erdogan come about in the first place? Was it a deliberate statement? Why did Özil comment so late in the day? What was the photo’s impact on the national team? Initial answers can be found where the affair first began: London.
The man who the German media have labeled „the puppet master behind Erdogate“ is sat in a Turkish restaurant in the multiethnic north of the city. Dressed in a white shirt and a blue sweater, sometimes speaking eloquently, sometimes passionately. Erkut Sögüt, in his late thirties, lawyer and agent of Mesut Özil, has, as opposed to his protégé, for the first time agreed to give a detailed statement. „There are a lot of conspiracy theories about me out there. It’s quite sad.“ he says.
Sögüt is originally from Hannover. His parents came to Germany as guest workers and earned their money as cleaners or in a factory, similar to Özil’s family. Sögüt gained admission to a Gymnasium; a school trip to Usedom just before his A-Levels in the late 90s has etched itself into his memory. Those amongst them with foreign roots couldn’t leave the campsite because Neo-Nazis were lurking outside the gates, waiting to hunt them down. Instead, police had to escort the children out, remembers Sögüt.
It was a matter of respect to meet Erdogan – Özil’s agent claims
During his law degree he worked as a waiter, did a paper route and sold kebabs to keep himself afloat. Sögüt identified as part of a new generation of guest worker children; an aspirational generation of budding lawyers and doctors, that no longer wanted to be patronised. Sögüt wanted to break into the football business. He established ties with agent Harun Arslan, who advises national coach Joachim Löw. Arslan was skeptical at first. Only the ambitious young man’s proposal to start an agency newsletter finally opened the door to Arslan for him – as well as to Özil later on. In 2012, Sögüt and Mutu Özil, Mesut’s brother, took over as his agents. Yet only the photo of Özil and Erdogan put Sögüt into the public eye. The all-important question: why did he not prevent it?
To Sögüt this is a peculiar question. „Why should I? Mesut is old enough, he’s got his own mind. He’s known the president for eight years, much longer than he has known me.“ He himself had only found out from Özil a couple of days before the meeting that Erdogan would come along, claims the agent. The Turkish foundation „Turken Foundation“ had Besser: invited him to the London luxury hotel „Four Seasons“. It awards scholarships to students who complete their studies abroad. Amongst others, president Erdogan’s daughter is a board member. The foundation tersely answers questions about the event: „We have no comments.“ Premier League players Mesut Özil, Ilkay Gündogan and Cenk Tosun had been personally invited. Emre Can, at the time a Liverpool FC player, had allegedly also received an invitation, reported the „Welt“ newspaper. This is true: after having consulted personal confidants, Can decided to forgo the visit.
That Erdogan would be there had been clear since early May, some of those in attendance claim. That’s why the event had been moved from the Victoria and Albert Museum to the conference rooms of the luxury hotel. On Sunday 13th May, Erdogan gave the after-dinner-speech and met the three players in a side room. Sögüt was also there; the players and Erdogan chatted about football for ten minutes, he says. At the time, roughly fifteen people were present; amongst others photographer Kayhan Özer who works for the news agency „Anadolu“ and accompanies the Turkish president when travelling. He took said photo at the meeting, but today claims not to remember how it came about.
The Turkish presidential elections were coming up in June, so Erdogan’s party AKP shared the photos early the following day. The players themselves did not post them on any of their various social media profiles; due to the strenuous relationship between the two countries, as Gündogan later admitted. In Germany, football officials and politicians immediately voiced their outrage. At 4:50pm, DFB president Reinhard Grindel tweeted that it wasn’t good that the players had let themselves be exploited for Erdogan’s campaign manoeuvre. „In doing so the players certainly haven’t helped the DFB’s integration activities.“
„It’s a question of respect to meet the president when he asks you to. Over the years the two have met time and time again, but it was never a problem for the German public“, replies Erkut Sögüt. Özil did indeed first meet with Erdogan in 2010. Before their meeting in London, Özil had visited the Turkish president in Ankara for the „Day of the Republic“ in October 2017. Yet, over the last eight years not only Erdogan’s politics and his treatment of unpopular opponents, but also the relationship with Germany have noticeably changed. „Should we tell Mesut: now you mustn’t meet the president, but feel free to in two months? That makes absolutely no sense.“, remarks Sögüt.
It’s very difficult to comprehend separating Erdogan’s politics from the presidential office itself. „For Germans this may be hard to understand, but on our end that’s the way it is. For Mesut it was never about politics. He doesn’t care about that.“ Turkish politics and the repression of journalists turn out to be a tough topic with the agent. „I’m against persecution of journalists as a result of their work, anywhere in the world.“, he says, but qualifies his statement straight away: „However, if someone commits a crime, they have to be prosecuted. Journalist or lawyer.“ What does that mean specifically? „I don’t want to go into too much detail. After all that’s not my job.“ Sögüt doesn’t accept that the photo boosted Erdogan’s campaign with the Turkish electorate in Germany. „It may seem that way. Yet, in fact it was the German press’ exuberant coverage that benefited the president a lot more. Many voters in Germany developed a „now more than ever“- attitude!“, he says. He believes that cancelling the meeting would have entailed no negative consequences for the players in Turkey whatsoever.
What is apparent is that Mesut Özil and his agent do not view the meeting as a mistake. Ilkay Gündoğan had declared the day after, that he appreciated „that you don’t have to approve of it. Because of our Turkish roots we still have a very strong relationship with Turkey. However, we never claimed that Mister Steinmeier wasn’t our President or Ms Merkel wasn’t our Chancellor“. Özil and Sögüt discussed such an explanation, but at the time it was out of the question for Özil. Especially after Gündoğan had been booed at the pre-World Cup test match against Saudi Arabia despite his statement. „It wasn’t about the photo anymore, it was simply some people being racist“, says Sögüt. At this point the „we“ turns into a „you“. „It’s all hypocrisy. Matthäus meets up with Putin in Moscow – why don’t you pressure him? I didn’t hear any cries for him to stand down or demands for a statement from the honorary DFB captain. The pressure was on Mesut every day, it was a smear campaign.“ The level of outrage came as a surprise to Özil and his personal environment. Sponsors such as Mercedes Benz retracted images of Özil from their advertisements and cancelled events – even Özil’s old school distanced itself.
The Berger Feld school is a state comprehensive; it is tucked in the shadow of the Veltins Arena and has a long standing cooperation with Schalke 04. Pictures of Manuel Neuer, Ralf Fährmann and Joel Matip line the hallway. A „Wall of Fame“ if you will; they all went to school here. Mesut Özil always came back when he was in Gelsenkirchen. He was friends with a few people and supported the school financially; sometimes he paid for pupils from economically weak backgrounds to go on school trips. The week after the Erdogan photograph, Özil wanted to visit his school with representatives of two charities, yet both of them cancelled. Özil decided there and then to organise the event himself. But headmistress Maike Selter-Beer supposedly rejected this idea during a phone call with his agent Sögüt.
Hailed in Turkey – rejected in his hometown Gelsenkirchen
Sources confirm that she feared massive media interest and protests from the ever-growing number of right wing party supporters in the region. Now, the school leadership team doesn’t want to comment on this. The rejection from his home town came as a shock to Özil; it would have significant impact on his later statement.
Gelsenkirchen has always been his fortress. He had taken his old friends with him to see the world and even got some of them jobs; from the Olgastsraße to Madrid and London. Gelsenkirchen symbolised a carefree youth, spent with boys from around the globe. The only thing that mattered was what happened on the pitch. Now, in May of 2018, he even felt unwanted and unwelcome right here, in his home.
Turkey’s Erdogan met with Ozil, Gundogan
At the time, Joachim Löw still viewed Özil and Gündogan simply as footballers and didn’t even think about not giving them the call-up for Russia. But the voices inside the DFB demanding consequences grew louder and louder. So Löw called Özil during his holiday and convinced him to meet the federation the following Saturday at Berlin Hyatt Hotel. In addition to DFB Secretary General Friedrich Curtius, Löw’s agent Harun Arslan was also present, because the coaching team was set to sign contract extensions that day. An expert of both sides, German as well as Turkish, he joined the conversation alongside the DFB-trio of Grindel, Bierhoff and Löw. Ilkay Gündogan was talkative, Özil less so. It had also been Gündogan who had first arrived in Berlin and proposed a meeting with German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This surprised Özil and he had to be convinced to come along.
He consulted Sögüt. „He didn’t feel quite right about it. It wasn’t about Steinmeier per se, but rather a question of timing. It all seemed like a bit of a show in reaction to the photo the week before“, says Sögüt. He told his protégé: „It would be good if you went. But – this is your decision. You shouldn’t feel any pressure.“ There wasn’t much time to spare; the presidential office confirmed that they were only informed about the idea on Friday evening. On the afternoon of Saturday the 19th May, Gündogan and Özil had a one hour meeting with Steinmeier in the gardens of Schloss Bellevue. A good conversation, they admitted. Especially because the President showed himself understanding and appreciative of their situation. „A person can have more than one home and find a new home“, Steinmeier wrote in a statement afterwards. Bellevue affirmed that the players had approved their statements themselves and that the DFB hadn’t been involved. Steinmeier’s staff published an article, the DFB shared their’s together with a photo of the talks with Grindel, Löw and Bierhoff. All those involved were sure that the outrage would die down now. They were wrong.
Following the photograph with Erdogan, Gündogan initiated a meeting with Federal President Steinmeier. Özil was taken by surprise.
Despite being presented as a prime example of successful integration by the DFB, Mesut Özil has remained alien to many football fans in Germany over recent years. He seldom perceived interviews as an opportunity, but rather as a chore. He only reluctantly attended media appointments and even let them fall through from time to time. Too many times was he supposed to justify himself. Why doesn’t he sing the national anthem? Why did he have his picture taken in Mecca? Why the photo in the changing rooms with Angela Merkel in 2010? Why the photo with Erdogan? His former teacher Jochen Herrmann once told the „Welt“, that Özil had already been „somewhat autistic“ as a child. Another teacher, Christian Krabbe, put it less drastic when speaking to 11FREUNDE: “He was modest and didn’t like to be at the centre of attention. He really only wanted to play football. And that’s remained the same to this day.“
People from Özil’s personal environment offered him help following the photo with Erdogan. They wanted to write a statement for him or find journalists who would conduct a clarifying interview in a relaxed atmosphere. Yet, Özil either didn’t even react or categorically turned down their proposals. He didn’t want to justify himself, didn’t want to apologise.
Some football pros spend years working on their external representation with agents and media coaches. Several grow from shy young players into eloquent leaders. On the other hand, despite a substantial advisory staff, Özil appears to lose control when he leaves the orderly lines of the pitch and has to step into the bright camera lights. Özil has built his world far away from spoken word; a world of social media channels followed by millions of fans. Here he feels secure, just like he does in the company of his family and friends.
Özil is originally from Devrek, a small town in the black sea province of Zonguldak. The footballer is, so to speak, the town’s most famous grandson. A street and a square have already been named after him. Before the 2018 World Cup, the locals were greeted by an oversized version of Özil on a large billboard. Since then the city has swapped that image for another: Erdogan. When Özil chose the German over the Turkish national team in 2009, he was met with immense hostility: „traitor“, „son of a bitch“ and „you’re no longer a Turk“. Erdogan has brought Özil home, that’s the way they see it in Devrek. Town leader Abdurrahman Yanaz was jubilant: „We are proud of Mesut’s decision to quit the German national team. Us villagers love him a lot.“ An apology for the Erdogan photo would have been seriously held against Özil here.
reuters | Mesut-Özil-Straße mit Erdogan Foto in Devrek
Mesut Özil and his siblings grew up in the Gelsekirchen working class area Bismarck. Bornstraße 30: splintered window panes, torn-off doorbell signs and dented letter boxes. Schalke 04 flags hang over window sills and cars are decorated with Galatasaray stickers. In 2017, around 75% of the electorate in this area voted for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ten percent above the average.
Özil’s idol has always been Zinédine Zidane, an immigrant child just like him living a Rocky-dream: from zero to hero. Özil’s dog is called „Balboa“. Almost all his childhood friends were children of immigrants; Lebanese, Polish or Turkish. Nine out of ten neighbours had foreign names, most of them Turkish. Many came as guest workers and certainly didn’t grow rich. The Özil’s didn’t have much, his father worked in a leather plant and a newsagent’s. From time to time he was unemployed. His mother cleaned from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon and sometimes until late at night.
„Mum doesn’t have time for hobbies and because she always has to work she doesn’t have time for us either“, Özil writes in his biography. He only spoke Turkish until he was four years old. „Günaydin, Baba“ – „Good morning, daddy“ is what he said when he sat down at the breakfast table to eat his Menemen (egg dish). The older boys were his „Abis“, big brothers. Authority figures that are not to be doubted or disagreed with, that’s what little Mesut had learned. He didn’t go to Kindergarten, because of money. He only learned German at school, but continued to speak Turkish with most classmates.
Only outside of this cosmos did Mesut Özil learn, how hard young Turks have to fight for acceptance and recognition. In his biography he writes: „It appeared to me as if Matthias, Markus or Michael always got preferential treatment.“ Four times he went to a scouting day, but was never amongst those who were picked for the U10s or U13s. Even in his own club he sometimes felt disadvantaged. As a player of Rot-Weiss Essen he scored seven goals in the derby against Scchwarz-Weiß. Yet in the next game he was back on the bench; allegedly because the father of a German teammate, who supported the club financially, wanted his son to start.
Right at the start of his pro career, Özil was racially abused multiple times. In 2012 the NPD-politician Klaus Beier called Özil a „plastic German, a passport German“ on the radio. Back then the DFB was quick to step in. „We will consider legal action in this case“, explained president Theo Zwanziger. „We are proud that Mesut Özil is a German player. He’s a symbol of the Germany that the DFB aspires – a free, tolerant and self-confident country, in which there is no space for nationalistic and racist thoughts.“
Germans react to Mesut Özil’s departure from national team | DW English
Against his nature, Özil dared to step forward and learned a speech off by heart when he received the Bambi for Integration. He also smiled at the cameras for the diversity campaigns of the DFB, shook Angela Merkel’s hand. He himself wanted to simply be a footballer, but that was no longer enough. How quickly he would be denied his new role as integration poster boy became apparent not only in the summer of 2018, but already during Euro 2012. Following the semi-final exit his agency received heaps of threats. Jerome Boateng explained these attacks in a way which was later used by Özil: „When you’re playing for Germany like Mesut, Sami or I and everything is going well, they say ‘They are German.‘. But when something bad happens, the other side comes out. Then everything is no longer German.“
In Russia Özil quickly wasn’t considered a German any more. Ever since the defeat to Mexico he’d been made out as the face of the crisis. In the end many supporters didn’t even deem him worthy of the Germany shirt any more. After the match against South Korea one fan abused him from the stands: „Piss off, you stupid Turkish swine. Turkish swine, fuck off!“
Why Germany failed at the World Cup 2018 group stage
This insult from the stands was the final act in a completely disastrous World Cup for Germany. During the tournament Joachim Löw’s team grappled with countless problems, the Özil affair being only one of them. It is apparent from discussions with the players, that the photo was never as big of a deal for them as it was for the German public. According to them, the name Erdogan didn’t even mean anything to some of their fellow players. They briefly addressed the topic in a team meeting, but allegedly nobody engaged with the issue for long. Many players were elsewhere with their thoughts: In-between training sessions they often sat in their rooms on their own and played games like Fortnite, sometimes until late at night. At the dinner table they split off into separate groups, but contrary to the prevailing opinion in the media these were not clear cut between „Potatoes“(the players with no multiethical/migrant background) and „Kanaken“ (pejorative term used against people of Turkish or Middle eastern decent, similar to “chavs“ or “wop“).
Just like in any other workplace, the creation of subgroups and cliques within a team is completely normal. This had also been the case at previous tournaments; Mats Hummels and Jerome Boating for example won’t ever become best of mates. There certainly was no clash of enemy clans in Vatuntinki, the German World Cup team base. In the emergency meeting after the Mexico game young as well as old, established and brash players alike had an hour long, civilised discussion. Kimmich contributed as much as Neuer, Kroos or Boateng. Hummels on the other hand remained silent during the analysis.
While there were no open disputes, the players most probably did miss the sense of togetherness experienced at the 2014 World Cup. Russia lacked a common goal that superseded individual interests. There was no „glue guy“ like Per Mertesacker. Many small factors amounted to general discord. Certain players complained about the arrogance of their established colleagues or the constant TV and water failures in Vatuntinki. Some were dissatisfied with the counter defence, wanted to play three at the back or questioned the lack of set piece training. And Özil? A handful of players were rather grumpy about his special treatment during training camp in Eppan, when he was allowed to skip the media day. Each and everyone had to speak to the press, only Özil refused.
In May, coach Löw appealed to Özil’s conscience. After the world cup Özil ignored his calls.
His silence irritated a few players, yet nobody thought of it as the decisive reason for their knock-out in the group stage. Only in early September Mats Hummels told the „Kicker“: „I didn’t consider the photo as influential on our performance as it probably was at the end of the day.“ Whereas Özil was hardly an issue in Russia, there was almost no other topic in Germany.
The notorious Mario Basler ranted about „the body language of a dead frog“. In the „Bild“ newspaper, Lothar Matthäus came up with the remote diagnosis that Özil didn’t feel comfortable wearing a Germany shirt. Chief columnist Alfred Draxler interpreted Özil’s closed mouth during the national anthem as lacking identification with Germany. All this set the tone for right-wing, nationalistic rage. AfD-politicians attacked Özil: „You’ll surely feel more comfortable in a Turkish shirt!“ A social democratic city councillor called him a „goat fucker“ and the German theatre in Munich’s artistic director demanded in all seriousness: „Piss off to Anatolia“.
Until this day, it remains unclear why nobody from the sizeable DFB delegation chose to stand in the way of these developments. Instead, the image of Özil as the main culprit was further reinforced after the tournament. Oliver Bierhoff even singled Özil out during an interview with the „Welt“ at the start of July: „We should have considered doing without him from a sporting perspective.“ Shortly after, Reinhard Grindel told the „Kicker“: „It is obvious to me that Mesut should make a public statement once he’s returned from holiday; for his sake as well.“ Özil did indeed make a statement, but it was far from what the DFB president had had in mind.
Özil made the decision to retire and publish a lengthy explanation in London after his holiday. Over the previous weeks he had sent articles and bullet points to Sögüt and other trusted friends, based on which they developed a text. The statement was written in English in order to reach as many fans as possible. Many of Özil’s digital followers live in Indonesia, North Africa and Brazil. As opposed to previous, shorter posts, Sögüt thought they could do without a translation into German and Turkish, because the world language of English would be the simplest way. However, a national player retiring in English was a novelty and made them vulnerable to criticism .
On 23rd July the text was published on Özil’s social media pages, released in three sections throughout the day. The first part dealt with the photo, the second engaged with the behaviour of the media and his sponsors. In the final statement Özil declared his retirement from international football. The man himself was en route to Singapore with the Arsenal squad at this point, while Sögüt stayed in London to monitor public reactions. Word inside the DFB is that Özil had signalled willingness to continue his international career only days before. Sögüt claims to have informed the national coach about the developments and upcoming statement in the morning before it was published. Löw himself says that this happened much later in the day. Then there was radio silence.
In quitting the national team, Mesut Özil attacked the German Football Association (DFB), its President Reinhard Grindel, and double standards in Germany’s media and society. Here are the key quotes from his statements.
Roughly one week before their much-anticipated world cup analysis, both Löw and Bierhoff had texted Özil and tried to call him. He didn’t react. Instead Sögüt spoke to them. Özil had simply been ill and would get in touch soon, he assured them. According to Sögüt their relationship was still intact. Those close to Özil claim that he was scared to tell his long time supporter Löw in person.
In his statement, Özil accused DFB president Grindel of discrimination and racism.“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world.“ Many German politicians and media outlets, but also the creative director of the theatre in Munich „represent a Germany of the past, a Germany not open to new cultures, and a Germany that I am not proud of.“ The treatment he’d received from the DFB and many others made him no longer want to wear the German shirt.
His critique of Grindel was harsh and backed up by three quotes from 2004. Back then the CDU-politician had remarked that „multiculturalism is in reality a myth and a life-long lie“ and that islamic culture had become too ingrained in many German cities. Furthermore, Grindel had voted against the legislation of dual-nationality for German-Turkish citizens. Whilst this is testament of Grindel’s conservative ethos, it appeared to be rather thin evidence of racism. Sögüt merely said that „Mesut has met Grindel and gained this impression of him.“
After Özil’s retirement one part of the public accused him of „beating the Nazi-drum“. The other celebrated his bravery. Many people shared their personal experiences of everyday racism online.
His now ex-teammates from the national side still remained silent. With the exception of Jerome Boateng, Julian Brandt and Julian Draxler none of the usually so social-media savvy players expressed regret about the retirement of their long-term team-mate. All the more loud was FC Bayern president Uli Hoeneß’ rumble that Özil had „played exclusively garbage“ for years and had only used the racism card to deflect attention from his performances. CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge assisted and spoke of a „phantom discussion“.
Bayern Munich president’s Mesut Ozil comments were ‚cowardly,‘ ‚hypocritical‘ | ESPN FC
At this point Sögüt also raises his voice and goes onto a several minute long tirade: „If there is anyone who wants to derail the conversation it’s those two. Deflect attention from the performance of their own players, their tax evasion, their smuggled Rolex watches and the nepotism inside their club. Rummenigge’s brother Michael and Hoeneß’ brother Dieter are both agents themselves. Years ago Michael wanted to poach Mesut as a client. I haven’t heard a single word from them about the Munich theatre director’s racist rant. How about you comment on that for a change!“
Amongst the national team which Özil had been a part of for nine years, public displays of regret remain rare. At the press conference before the France game in September foreign journalists asked about racism in Germany; players and staff dismissed the issue. Thomas Müller had previously stated that racism in the national team and in sport in general weren’t a thing. Kroos spoke of „rubbish“ in Özil’s statement. Löw and Neuer decisively rejected the claim that there had been racism inside the team. Yet, aside from Antonio Rüdiger nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that this wasn’t even the issue: „What I don’t get about the whole discussion is why some people debate whether there is racism in the national team. Mesut himself didn’t say that with a single sentence.“
Will time heal the wounds? Will Özil return to Germany?
Sögüt, too, is upset: „Löw is defending himself against an accusation that was never even made. Neuer accuses Mesut of not having worn the Germany shirt with pride. That’s unacceptable. Müller clearly hasn’t understood the discussion. And Kroos should explain what he means by „rubbish“, given that he’s a veteran of the team. What Neuer, Müller and Kroos have said is disappointing and misplaced. There can only be two explanations for their statements: either they are naive or they are scheming. Mesut wasn’t racially abused by the team, but by society – that’s were the DFB should have protected him.“
Sögüt has unquestionably been emotionally affected by the debate, because it reminded him of that time in Usedom; when he had to be escorted out of a holiday camp by police officers. At the time the camp warden warned of letting the incident get to the press. Maybe this is why certain arguments have become so fierce. Sögüt concludes: „Germany isn’t a racist country, but it has a growing problem with racism.“
Erkut Sögut has been at Mesut Özil’s side for six years; he was also at the “Four Seasons“ during the meeting.
Meanwhile, the DFB president has conceded that he should have protected Özil more. Nevertheless, many accusations and rather little self-criticism remain on all sides. Sögüt says: „Maybe our statement should have engaged more with the sporting performance, but we all know that Mesut wasn’t happy with this world cup; just like any other player. But he’s not made any mistakes off the pitch. End of.“
The 2014 world cup feels a little bit like a never-ending school trip. Right from the start, the summer of 2018 seemed leaden and heavy. Was the debate too big for football, where most thing have simple explanations? An overly complex discussion for less than complex business. At some point it bore resemblance to a play which had a clearly defined beginning but simply had no end. A play with neither a hero nor a villain. A play in which the smallest side notes mutated into enormous turning points, which is why nobody dared to say anything at all in the end.
Free fall averted. Ilkay Gündogan continues to play for Germany, the boos from the crowd are dying down.
One got quickly caught up in a discussion of identity, racism, integration and how football had to deal with these issues. Coach Löw tried to focus on sporting success and turned a blind eye to everything else. Oliver Bierhoff didn’t want to alienate sponsors and tried to brush the issue off with a few empty phrases. Reinhard Grindel mainly cared about the German application to host Euro 2024; complex debates were the last thing he needed and so he ended up on a zig-zag course. First criticism, then appeals to Özil, a moratorium, then the demand of a statement again. Özil’s teammates froze in fear of the large debate and lost the plot. But what are you supposed to say if you normally only post pictures of your brand-new sports car? And then there’s also Erkut Sögüt, the man behind Özil. Maybe he noticed that he went off track at some point, as those close to him seem to suspect. But at this point it was too late; tracking back would have cost him his credibility. Everyone had utterly misjudged the situation.
Those involved in the talks admit: „We had no clue whatsoever and that’s how we treated the issue.“ Last but not least there’s Özil himself, of course: Celebrated and treated with hostility by Germans and Turks alike – used as a symbol by both countries. Integration poster boy here, proud Turk there; caught up between cultures. First he refused to comment, then he shut himself off altogether. He’s a man that is likely to retreat in most uncomfortable situations. He’s also completely different to Ilkay Gündogan, who is very articulate and thus dared to step forward. Gündogan still plays for the DFB; he was booed by noticeably fewer fans against France in September. Will time also heal wounds with regards to Özil?
Back in the day he’d said that he wanted to end his career in Germany. To his friends this seems impossible now. Maybe he will stay in London, with his Turkish girlfriend and mates from Gelsenkirchen. Bring the magic to the Emirates on a Saturday; the evenings spent playing video games in his villa in Highgate. Turkish furniture next to pictures of his German memories.