In late July, weeks after Germany’s unthinkable failure at the 2018 World Cup, Mesut Ozil decided he could no longer stay quiet.
So he spoke up, in the form of a remarkable, damning letter. In one fell swoop, he retired from the German national team. He accused Germany’s soccer federation, the DFB, of “racism and disrespect.” He did not hold back, and his criticism cut right to the heart of the German establishment.
Three-and-a-half weeks later, the storm still rages on. German soccer is unsettled. Ozil’s words are still fresh on everybody’s minds. Reactions and responses continue to trickle in.
But the responses from those who matter most have been distressing. They’ve been either cowardly or ignorant, or both. Ozil’s international teammates, the ones who should be supporting him more than ever, have turned their backs.
Toni Kroos the latest to dispute Ozil’s claims
Ozil’s criticisms and opinions were imperfect. His refusal to acknowledge fault after posing for a picture with Turkish president/quasi-dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan was regrettable.
But there was plenty of truth in his letter. And the refusal of his teammates to acknowledge those truths has been far more regrettable.
Toni Kroos was the latest to back the establishment and reject Ozil’s accusations. “I have played with Mesut for many years and know that he is a nice guy,” Kroos told German newspaper Bild. “But the way he retired was out of order.
“The proportion of his statement which was fair and justified was unfortunately overshadowed by a much higher proportion of nonsense. I think he himself knows that racism does not exist within the national team and the DFB.”
Kroos, as a player who hopes to continue to represent Germany, might feel inclined to defend its soccer federation. That’s understandable. But who the hell is he to suggest “racism does not exist within the DFB”?
Other German veterans have also backed the DFB
Kroos isn’t the only one to go down this path. Manuel Neuer called the Ozil saga “stressful” – or “exhausting,” or “extremely difficult,” depending on the translation. Thomas Muller essentially blamed that on the media, saying the issue has been “blown out of proportion.”
The most disturbing part of the fallout has been the establishment’s attempts to dance around the very serious issues Ozil raised. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath:
What should have been cause for introspection and nuanced discussion has instead turned into a divisive issue, a case of one side’s word vs. another’s, any middle ground devoured by incendiary rhetoric and a lack of empathy.
Muller opined that “racism in our national squad is out of the question.” Neuer seemed to affirm the claim: “We have always tried to integrate every player and have always done everything for our teammates.”
But their statements miss the point. Even those who have “supported” him by saying they’d welcome him back to the team miss the point.
The vast majority of Ozil’s thousands of words pertained to DFB executives, sponsors, media outlets and fans. Ozil’s teammates didn’t have to admit any culpability. But for a few to essentially say, Well this isn’t our problem, as opposed to saying, This is a massive problem in Germany, and we, as Germans, all have a responsibility to fix it, is disheartening.
The establishment’s response has been worse
Kroos called some of Ozil’s accusations “nonsense.” Many executives went further.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – former Germany striker and current Bayern Munich CEO – called the controversy a “phantom debate which does not originate from racism.”
Uli Hoeness – former Germany striker and current Bayern Munich president – ignored the graveness of the matter and instead attacked Ozil as a footballer. “He’s been playing s— for years,” the out-of-touch 66-year-old said.
The DFB, for its part, “emphatically rejected” being “associated with racism.”
Perhaps they are all right. Perhaps Ozil was simply reacting to justified criticism. But go back and read his letter. Do a little factual research. And you’ll see that the establishment – which apparently now includes Ozil’s former teammates – is in the wrong here.
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