Mesut Ozil has elected to stop playing for Germany after the reaction to a photo taken with Turkey's president and a lack of support from the German federation in a decision that holds many layers.

By Grant Wahl and Brian Straus
July 24, 2018

We're back from the World Cup and playing catchup with the goings on around the world of soccer–and there's plenty taking the spotlight after France captured the world championship in Moscow a little over a week ago. 

One of the biggest disappointments at the World Cup, Germany, has an unwanted spotlight on its hands after Mesut Ozil's sudden decision to stop playing for the national team. At 29, and with Euro 2020 a couple of years away, there's ample reason to continue playing internationally, but the reception Ozil has received for a controversial photo taken with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the World Cup has been enough to compel him to call it quits. The German federation's response–or lack thereof–has played a large role in Ozil's call, which he made public on Sunday. It was met with harsh criticism from Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, who was met in kind by strongly worded remarks from Ozil's agent, as the nasty public spat over Ozil's choice continues.

The Ozil discussion begins at the 8:10 mark of our new podcast episode and can be heard in full in the podcast console below. For more of this week's episode and past and future Planet Fútbol Podcast shows, you can subscribe to our feed on iTunes here.

Here's a selection of the conversation on Ozil's decision:

GRANT WAHL: There are some things happening in the soccer world though, and I just want to address those things with the knowledge of everyone, I hope, that we’re sort of just getting back in on re-entry here. So we’re aware of all this stuff and that includes Mesut Özil’s very frank, very candid, posts—three of them—that he put up on Twitter on Sunday in which he, I wouldn’t say retires from the national team…

BRIAN STRAUS: He never used that word. he danced around that word, didn’t he?

GW: But he said he’s done wearing the Germany shirt as long as he feels like there’s racist treatment of him continuing in Germany. And it’s just a crazy situation. This goes back to before the World Cup started, when Özil posed for a picture with Erdogan, the very controversial right-wing Turkish president. Now, Mesut Özil is German. He’s of Turkish background. And he faced a really negative backlash—Ilkay Gündogan also was in this picture—and both those guys were on the Germany national team. They were getting booed by German fans in friendlies before the tournament. And then when Germany went out in the group stage, a lot of the negativity in Germany—and some of it very racist, very anti-Turkish, anti-Özil, anti-Gündogan stuff—came out, and has continued, including from the German federation president.

BS: That’s where [Özil’s] ire really, he dances around that a little bit then goes full on Death Star laser beam on Reinhard Grindel, who’s the DFB president. And [Özil] just says that his lack of support—I guess [Grindel] was a politician in the past and was sort of anti-immgirant—and Özil just finds the guy odious and it sounds like what Özil is really saying is if invited or selected, he is not going to play for Germany again as long as Grindel is in office.

GW: This is one of the greatest players that Germany has ever produced, who still theoretically could play for many more years with the German national team. And so, my thoughts here are, this is a complex story. I don’t think it was necessarily that wise for Özil to take a picture next to Erdogan, who’s a truly bad guy. I also understand there are lots of factors that go into a situation like that.

We saw Mohamed Salah take a picture next to the awful [Ramzan] Kadyrov guy, the Chechen leader, when Egypt idiotically decided to base their camp in Chechnya during the World Cup. And Özil doesn’t acknowledge any sort of any regrets about that decision. And yet there’s also completely no excuse for the response from German media, in many cases, the German public, people on Twitter, to Özil’s situation. And now they’ve lost him from the national team.

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BS: He said it was about respect for the office. That was the way he sort of, I don’t know, tried to put it inside some bubble wrap and make it hurt less. It was, “I’m not a politician. I’m a footballer. I would’ve accepted the invitation from whoever was president. And this is my heritage.” I guess his grandparents were Turkish. “This is my heritage and I would’ve disappointed people if I turned down this opportunity, and this is about appearing w/ the president of Turkey, whomever that may be, and not Erdogan.”

I guess this same debate happens here about whether or not teams should go tho the White House, right? The Warriors and the Eagles and some other teams have had this argument. Are you being recognized by the office, or by the man who holds it? So, I’m not about to wade into German-Turkish identity politics. I don’t know the first thing about either of them. But yeah, it seemed Özil was naive if he didn’t think that this would cause a problem. It sounds like Grindel and the DFB and some others were really somewhere on the continuum between incompetent and cruel in the way they then responded to this. So this is going to be one of these deals where there are lots of people at fault in some way or another.

The big picture for me is sort of the, after coming so close, [Germany] had this revolution in style, this revolution in approach, in player development, in commitment to youth and investment in youth all throughout Germany, at Bundesliga clubs and at the training and identification centers they built around the country. You had stylish soccer. You had a World Cup champion in 2014. You then essentially had a U-23 team win the Confederations Cup. And it just seemed like everything that this federation did was the right thing. And they were so well run and so well organized, and so committed to football development, that you sort of wondered where the chinks in the armor were going to be. I did that story before the World Cup about some of that stuff and then used their technology partnership with the San Jose Earthquakes, just kind of to root it in the U.S. a little bit just because it’s kind of interesting….

GW: Another really well-run organization, by the way….

BS: I don’t know what to say to that. They’re doing some interesting things, and the team they have on the field this season is not very good. And both of those things can be true. I have no idea. The IT stuff that the Earthquakes are doing is interesting, with the 3D imaging and the machine learning. That’s interesting. And I don’t know enough about it to know whether or not three months after starting that project, they should be winning every game. I don’t know what the correlation is there. But it’s interesting. And the DFB got involved and it’s a window into their thinking. The DFB wants to be in Silicon Valley. The DFB wants to be associated with all the thought leaders and innovators and tech people, and it was symbolic of their—and when I spoke to Oliver Bierhoff for the story—of their desperate attempt to avoid arrogance and complacency.

And of course he brought up the famous Beckenbauer quote about, “Germany’s going to be unbeatable,” and how everything they do is designed to get away from that sense that all they have to do is show up, because they’re Germany. They’re going to spend more, and work harder, and experiment more. And then they go out and just completely crap the bed. It couldn’t have been a more dramatic right-out-of-the-gate face plant. Veterans didn’t play well. There are obviously issues inside the team, issues inside the federation. Everything they were supposed to avoid, everything they committed themselves to maneuvering through, they just ran smack into. And that’s just kind of crazy to me—that with all the money and all the time and the overthinking about arrogance, and complacency, and ego, and personality issues, and division, that basically all of those things happened and the entire World Cup blew up in their face.

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GW: Yeah, and there’s also something here with the idea of hyphenated identities. We could sit here and talk about this for hours. It’s interesting though to me that Özil had sort of a negative response to being characterized as German-Turkish, whereas in a lot of other places, including the U.S., I think that’s really a point of pride and people like to say, “I’m a hyphenated American.”

BS: But people said it was that state of hyphenation, to whatever extent that it existed, they then blamed that, partially or totally. That was seen as a flaw in Germany’s preparation and execution at the World Cup. The distraction caused by his photo and his lack of apology, ergo his hyphenation, was part of the reason Germany failed. That’s the accusation. So he’s responding, “How dare you blame the collective failure on the way I think about my heritage and identity.” I guess I kind of get that. I understand why, if you don’t think you were at fault, why it would bother you when people pin something as significant as this really total failure by Germany at the World Cup–you don’t want that pinned to you. I can understand that.

GW: I get it. But at the same time, we’re hailing France and their multi-ethnic team for winning. It seems crazy that there are large parts of Germany, it sounds like, blaming their failure on multi-ethnicity.

You can download the podcast and listen to the remainder of the conversation on iTunes here.

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