Mesut Özil retired from the German national team with a searing statement that threw elegant vitriol at Reinhard Grindel and the DFB in general. He opened up the can of racism in German football and took it to a new level. How will this resonate in a federation still hurting from an early World Cup exit?
There was a shadow looming over Die Mannschaft‘s camp even before the World Cup in Russia started. Özil appeared in a photograph with fellow German international İlkay Gündoğan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both players presented autographed shirts to Erdoğan as gifts. Gündoğan wrote “To my president, with my respects” on his.
A handful of German politicians lashed out at the players for participating in the photo op immediately. Some belonging to Germany’s emerging nationalistic wing even suggested Özil and Gündoğan should be barred from the national team. Reinhard Grindel, DFB president, came out with a mild public reprimand. He argued that while the DFB respects the background of migrant players, it was not good for German internationals to pose with someone like Erdoğan. “Football and the DFB stand for values that Mr Erdoğan does not respect”, he said.
The crisis takes a turn to shine its spotlight exclusively on Özil here. While Gündoğan acknowledged the backlash and defended his actions with a statement, the Arsenal midfielder kept silent. The Manchester City player argued that he posed with Erdoğan out of respect for the office of President. Some dismissed the statement as insufficient and claimed that Emre Can rejected an invitation to the same event, to avoid being used as a political tool. A set of fans booed him when he entered the pitch in the last friendly against Saudi Arabia. However, Gündoğan escaped the bulk of repercussion by simply making a statement at all.
Özil, on the other hand, had the storm coming at him.
The World Cup debacle
When Germany fell victim to the ongoing curse of the reigning champions, there was much debate about what happened. Most of it remained strictly focused on staff decisions and individual performances. Indeed, Özil was maligned thoroughly by the press and the fans on this account. He offered dismal performances and looked like he couldn’t be bothered to make an effort.
And then, Oliver Bierhoff spun the DFB’s proverbial car into an unrecoverable skid.
“Germany should have considered leaving Özil out of the World Cup squad”, he argued. While he expressed no concern with the actual photographs, he said that the debate that followed in their wake distracted him and the rest of the team. Bierhoff stopped short of actually laying all the blame on Özil, but the message was enough to convey just that. The press, and indeed the public, made exactly that from Bierhoff’s ill-advised statement.
Grindel followed closely, demanding an explanation from Özil. The DFB was pointing its finger at him vehemently, if not literally.
Following a lengthy and telling silence, Özil finally released a multi-part statement on social media on 22 July. He placed hours-long intervals between each part to drive every point he made home. Every bit contained parts worthy of headlines. And in the last part, Özil dropped the bomb. He declared that he will not play for Germany “whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect”. He directly pointed at Grindel with an unforgiving ruthlessness, remembering the latter’s incendiary statements about dual-heritage and integration. Özil asked the difficult questions. Why is he referred to as German-Turkish while the likes of Lukas Podolski, Polish by birth, are simply German?
The statement, unparalleled in recent football history, wreaked havoc. The DFB, still licking their wounds from the exit in Russia, now had a whole different animal of a crisis. A racism crisis.
Grindel and the DFB responded with their own statement. They admitted to making mistakes but rejected the accusations of racism issued by the player. In comparison, this response was nowhere near as strong as Özil’s. It resorted to traditional media clichés and self-congratulatory defences. Özil’s resignation was a masterstroke, both in terms of content and timing. What the DFB mustered to counteract it paled in comparison.
The oncoming storm
Özil threw the DFB into a streetfight it can’t come out of unscathed. Racism has regained its political relevance in recent years. It never lost it in football. No amount of denials will wipe Bierhoff and Grindel’s statements. And with the date where UEFA will choose the host nation for the 2024 Euro looming, the DFB stands to lose everything.
Grindel should resign. His handling of the crisis before, during and after the World Cup offered glimpses of a chairman lacking in leadership and decisiveness. Bierhoff acted in a similarly flip-floppy way. They shifted what should have been a conversation about sporting matters into a political one where they stand to lose on all counts. Yes, Özil’s performance during the World Cup was nothing short of shambolic. However, to make him the unaccompanied scapegoat of the debacle in Russia is unforgivable. Even less so if the Erdoğan affair is brought into consideration.
And here’s the thing. If Grindel does resign, Germany’s chances to win the Euro 2024 bid will all but vaporise. UEFA will not choose a disgraced federation to host its flagship tournament. And thus the picture completes itself: the DFB put itself in a position where it cannot win. Everything on their to-do list – the renovation and rebuilding of the national team, the 2024 bid, the youth tournaments – looms in the shadow of the word “racism”.
Grindel chose to weather the storm of racism instead of risking everything else. He wants to convey a false sense of stability. But stability is not always a good thing. And with Grindel, it’s certainly a bad one.