N'Golo Kante, Mesut Ozil and belonging

The World Cup revealed the ugly underbelly of European racism and intolerance.

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    N'Golo Kante, Mesut Ozil and belonging
    Arsenal's Mesut Ozil in action with Chelsea's N'Golo Kante during a January 3 Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea [Reuters]

    Earlier this month, France held nation-wide celebrations after it won its second ever World Cup trophy. Meanwhile, much of the attention outside the country was focused on the multicultural background of its team.

    Indeed, during the final match against Croatia, many watching around the world supported France precisely because 15 members of its 23-player squad are of African descent. To many supporters, the victory of this team represented a momentary triumph over the challenges faced by people of colour in European societies: the lingering effects of colonialism, economic deprivation and exploitation, systemic discrimination and racism at all levels of society.

    N'Golo Kante, for example, whose parents emigrated from Mali, grew up in the Paris suburbs where he collected litter to help support his family, taking on football full-time later than most of his teammates. During the World Cup, the midfielder was the engine that drove a young and electrifying French team to victory and was widely praised for his performance.

    After France's victory, some observers expressed hopes that French society would more readily embrace the people it had marginalised and mistreated on the basis of their ethnic or religious identities.

    These pleas were well-meaning but missed the mark: they reinforced the notion that citizenship should be "deserved" or contingent upon such monumental achievements as winning the ultimate prize in the world of football.

    Just one week later, German midfielder Mesut Ozil offered a sobering rebuttal to those aspirational calls. Ozil, who like Kante was born in Europe to immigrant parents, announced his retirement from the German national team due to the racism he endured from the German Football Association (DFB), segments of the German media, and some fans.

    Currently playing in England for Arsenal FC, Ozil is a world-class footballer who has won at the highest levels across Europe and received the German national team Player of the Year award a record five times. Four years ago in Brazil, he lifted the trophy as a key member of the team that won Germany its fourth World Cup.

    But after having crashed out of Russia 2018 in the group stages, supporters of the defending champions went searching for answers. Although the performance of the entire German team was substandard, Ozil was singled out, with many of the comments pointing to his Turkish heritage.

    Mesut Ozil retirement draws mixed reactions in Germany

    The racist subtext of this criticism exists in stark contrast to the gleeful celebrations of French multiculturalism that accompanied France's victory. "I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose," Ozil wrote.

    Having already endured a media storm for posing for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May, Ozil hit back.

    In his statement, he challenged those Germans who refuse to accept his dual heritage and see him as the "other". "I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish," he declared. His meeting with Erdogan, he explained, was a reflection of his maintaining contact with the land of his roots. "During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day."

    To his critics, it did not matter that Ozil refuted charges that his meeting with Erdogan had any political agenda. That was beside the point. By denouncing this momentary expression of his Turkish identity, elements of the German political and media establishments sent a strong message to Germany's 3 million citizens of Turkish background that their acceptance into German society is predicated upon leaving behind any attachments to their ancestral home.

    Moreover, due to its ongoing differences with Erdogan, the German government has actively worked to undermine those ties, such as when it cancelled a series of public meetings between Turkish state officials and Turkish communities in Germany ahead of the 2017 Turkish referendum in which an estimated 1.4 million Germans were eligible to vote.

    The inordinately harsh reaction to the Erdogan photo should be understood in light of what it means to have a German public figure of Ozil's stature challenging a political status quo rooted in racism and Islamophobia.

    As Ozil bravely recounted in his open letter, the DFB is hardly a non-political entity concerned only with sporting success. Its president, Reinhard Grindel, is a former member of parliament with a history of supporting laws that would limit the rights of immigrants. He has also called multiculturalism "a lie" and previously warned against the presence of Islam in Germany. "This is unforgivable and unforgettable," wrote Ozil.

    Across Europe, fan abuse and intense media scrutiny are an everyday reality for professional football players of immigrant background. After conceding the free kick that set up Toni Kroos' winning goal during the final seconds of the group stage match against Germany, Swedish midfielder Jimmy Durmaz was subjected to a torrent of racist abuse online.

    Born to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey, Durmaz nevertheless received strong backing from the Swedish Football Association, which went as far as reporting some of the racist threats to the police.

    By contrast, the DFB has only heaped more abuse on its own player, prompting Ozil's decision to retire. At only 29 years old, he still has plenty left to give to his country on the pitch, so this decision could not have come lightly.

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    "People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has many players from dual-heritage families," he wrote. For millions of citizens of immigrant background in Germany and across Europe often forced to endure mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of state officials, this statement rings true.

    As Ozil noted, the double standard has been on display for all to see. Lothar Matthaus, a former player and the German national team's honorary captain, was not scrutinised for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the World Cup. Criticism of Ozil's past German teammates Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose never referenced their Polish heritage in the same way that his Turkish heritage was.  

    Ozil's statement was as reflective as it was impassioned. Its spirit betrays years of internalised questions on identity and inclusivity in Germany that no amount of on-the-field success could resolve.

    Ultimately, in the face of such relentless hostility because of who he is and not how he plays, Ozil felt compelled to say, "enough is enough. That is not why I play football, and I will not sit back and do nothing about it. Racism should never, ever be accepted."

    For all its ability to showcase the top footballing talent on the planet, the World Cup has also developed into an event that takes stock of the progress within the societies that produced these athletes. It can serve to shine a light onto corners of these societies we frequently do not see. And sometimes, that light reveals a lot more in defeat than it does in victory.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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