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How Mesut Özil's Resignation Exposes Europe's Crisis Of Citizenship

Ozil's saga reveals vicious hypocrisies about integration and citizenship

mesut ozil resignation germany

“I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.” Star footballer Mesut Özil, whose grandparents moved to Germany as gastarbeiter 50 years ago, offered this as explanation for posing in a photo with Turkish president Recep Erdoğan in May. The incident has exposed deep rifts in German society, culminating this week in Özil announcing his withdrawal from the national team. 

To many in Germany, Özil’s confession of dual loyalties will confirm their view that he has always lacked commitment to the national side. Before the recent World Cup, Lothar Matthäus, ex-captain of Germany, wrote “Özil does not feel comfortable in the Germany jersey . . . he is not free, almost as if he does not want to play at all. There is no heart, no joy, no passion.’’ A politician from the far-right AfD party was more specific, attributing Özil’s failings to his Muslim upbringing, where “he never learned much about Germanness”.

The Özil controversy raises general issues about citizenship. What should be required of the hearts and minds of new immigrants? In 1990 the conservative British politician Norman Tebbit framed a sporting criterion for whether new arrivals are sufficiently committed to their adopted country. According to the “Tebbit test”, Britons with an Indian background, say, aren’t properly loyal unless they support the English team when it plays cricket against India. 

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"There are many dimensions to identity. You can respect the public customs of your new country while retaining many of your traditional attachments – and supporting your original country on the sports field."

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The Tebbit test is widely regarded as misguided. As it happens, I was at Lord’s last week for the 2nd one-day international between England and India. The two young men next to me were 100 per cent Londoners but desperate for India to win. They’d been brought up by their immigrant parents to root for India, and why not? I’ve a London friend from Merseyside who has taught his children to support Liverpool FC. 

This doesn’t mean that immigrants don’t owe anything to their new countries. A healthy community rests on shared ideas about proper public conduct. Newcomers need to respect the local ways of doing things. They need to understand how people settle disputes, how they relate to neighbours and acquaintances, the significance of local rituals and holidays, and so on. I’ve no doubt that my Lord’s neighbours were impeccable in these respects.

But that’s no reason why they should disown their origins. There are many dimensions to identity. You can respect the public customs of your new country while retaining many of your traditional attachments – and supporting your original country on the sports field.

But what if you’re actually playing for your new country against others? At that point divided loyalties might seem more of a problem. That’s certainly the suspicion of Lothar Matthäus and Özil’s other detractors. In their view, someone with two hearts cannot be fully devoted to one team.

But this danger is more apparent than real. Plenty of committed footballers have had dual allegiances. The great Alfred di Stefano, who led Real Madrid to five European Cups in the 1950s, represented both his native Argentina and his adopted Spain. No-one ever suggested he wasn’t trying when in a Spanish jersey. Switching international teams isn’t so easy nowadays, but the modern world has thrown up plenty of families that are spread across different countries. The Boatengs (Germany, Ghana), Xhakas (Albania, Switzerland) and Pogbas (France, Guinea) are among those who have contributed successful brothers to different national teams.

In the carefully considered statement he issued on Sunday, Özil contends that he has been singled out on ethnic grounds. He makes a good case. After the photo, Özil was pressured by Reinhard Grindel, the head of the German Football Association, to publicly dissociate himself from Ertogan. “It is very clear to me that Mesut should publicly give his view” announced Grindel. “It's fair we give a well-deserved international who made a mistake a chance.” Apparently Özil’s refusal make any statement did much to disrupt the German World Cup preparations.

Perhaps posing with the authoritarian Erdoğan was ill-considered – not that Özil makes any apologies – but that does little to justify Grindel’s demands. It’s hard to imagine a similar retraction being required of a player who’d been photographed with the leader of Russia, say, or China. (As Özil observes, his critic Matthäus was recently photographed with Vladimir Putin without that occasioning any fuss.)

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"Sport has long been a crucial force in fostering racial harmony. It is sad now to see it exposing ethnic stresses."

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By any reckoning, the German Football Association has managed this badly. Özil attributes his lack of support to Grindel’s political views. For many years an MP for the conservative CDU, Grindel stated in 2004 that “multiculturalism is in reality a myth and a lifelong lie”. His treatment of Özil certainly reflects little sympathy for the specific issues facing Germany’s Muslim minority. From a distance, it seems puzzling that someone with Grindel’s background should have been chosen to head the German Football Association.

This has been a depressing step backwards. Sport has long been a crucial force in fostering racial harmony. It is sad now to see it exposing ethnic stresses. But perhaps we should put the issue in perspective. After all, the fuss would no doubt have blown over if only Germany hadn’t been knocked out in the group stages. I don’t remember anybody asking about the Turkish-Muslim contribution when the German team brought home the World Cup in 2014. It’s not surprising that German’s dismal performance on the field has led to an unedifying search for scapegoats.

The French and English World Cup teams provide a useful comparison. Both were filled with players from immigrant backgrounds, but in neither case was this anything but a cause for celebration. England’s unexpected progress and France’s ultimate victory made both countries proud of all their players.

Still, Mesut Özil’s withdrawal is an important wake-up call. Harmony might be easy when things are going well. But society needs a fabric that will not tear in times of stress. One component is to recognize that good citizens can have a variety of cultural affiliations. Loyalty to country does not require disavowal of origins.

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