Immigrants Won the World Cup, But Ozil’s Retirement Reminds Us that Racism Isn’t Defeated


Immigrants Won the World Cup, But Ozil’s Retirement Reminds Us that Racism Isn’t Defeated

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

After playing 92 matches for his country, most recently at the 2018 World Cup, German midfielder Mesut Ozil announced his retirement from international football on Monday. At 29, Ozil surely has a few good Euro Cup and World Cup performances left in him, all the better to rinse the taste of Germany’s sad showing from the mouths of dedicated Deutschland fans.

Ozil, who is of Turkish heritage, had other reasons for his retirement that proved more important than the disappointment of quitting on a low note. He claimed that the German Football Association (DFB) head, Reinhard Grindel, only considers him a German when they win, and an immigrant when they lose. Ozil also said that regardless of his contributions, he is treated as an outsider.

Of course, the DFB immediately refuted any allegations of racism. But Ozil’s grievances are bigger than football. Back in May, the third-generation German visited his ancestral homeland and posed for a photo with controversial President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a leader who has come under fire for his autocratic regime. Erdogan has also antagonised Chancellor Angela Merkel, going so far as to plead with German Turks not to vote for her.

It’s no wonder, then, that Ozil’s photo-op caused a furore in Germany. In response, Ozil explained that he had acted out of respect for the highest office in his home country, rather than support for Erdogan. But the backlash went beyond criticism to full-blown racism. Some, including German politicians, questioned the footballer’s loyalty to his national team, and others sent him hate mail. Even now, following Ozil’s retirement, the president of Bayern Munich skewered him for not playing well enough, and right-wing leaders have held him up as an example of failed immigrant integration.

Is this the aftermath of what has been the most feel-good World Cup in recent memory? France’s electrifying victory belonged to its black stars, prompting The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah to declare a World Cup win on behalf of Africa. Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku’s stunning essay in The Player’s Tribune detailed the tearjerker trajectory of a kid from a poor Congolese family. This was the World Cup ahead of which an undocumented migrant from Mali darted up a building to rescue a child dangling from a balcony, and was promptly offered French citizenship.

Surely this veritable tome of immigrant fairy tales is a bright spot in the generally dismal relations between the EU and its migrants? Maybe now, they will be inspired to throw open their gates to those brave souls who have journeyed over land and sea, just to become the next generation of great European footballers?

Not exactly. Because even when immigrants go above and beyond, scaling buildings like Superman to save screaming children, when they smash records as world-renowned footballers, it is never enough to make them European. In his essay, Lukaku describes the heartbreaking moments when, due to his height and skin colour, parents would demand to see the ID of the young player who was trouncing their kids. He, like Ozil, felt that the press would call him a Belgian player in victory, and a Congolese immigrant in defeat.

Ozil is hardly the first footballer to speak out about racism in a sport where minorities are often overrepresented because it is a rare instance of true meritocracy. Players from the Boateng brothers in Germany to Mario Balotelli in Italy have long fought against slurs and abuse, and this should come as no surprise. As any Indian abroad knows, former colonisers are often not as welcoming as they might be to foreigners, and Africans in France and Belgium are no exception. Turks in Germany also have a long and unpleasant history of being stigmatised as temporary workers, and it seems that Ozil, regardless of his fame, can’t transcend the stereotype of only being a German when he is useful to Germany.

As any Indian abroad knows, former colonisers are often not as welcoming as they might be to foreigners, and Africans in France and Belgium are no exception.

After a World Cup that was lauded for belonging to immigrants, Ozil’s retirement statement throws up a new question: Is it possible for immigrants to belong?

Perhaps the answer comes from Noah, whose joke about an “African win” drew umbrage from the French ambassador to the US. The ambassador insisted that the players were not African, but fully French. Noah, a South African, responded in terms that any immigrant would understand, pointing out that the players’ Frenchness did not make them any less African – just as Ozil once said he had two hearts, one German and one Turkish.

Alas, if Ozil’s retirement is proof of anything, it’s that immigrants, however heroic, went back to second-class status as soon as the sheen of the World Cup wore off.