Athletes occupy a strange place in our lives. They are simultaneously heroes and villains, depending on which side of the scoreline you root for. They provide us immeasurable highs and soul crushing lows. We go as they go, if only for fleeting moments. Their victories are our victories and their losses are our losses before we inevitably go back to our lives, back to our jobs, and back to our own realities. For all of their impossible skill and the undeniable privilege they are afforded, athletes are in the unenviable position of being subject to a level of scrutiny that would drive the rest of us mad. Few athletes seem to be so representative of that idea as Arsenal’s own Mesut Ozil.
There is no nice way of saying it - Mesut Ozil has had a pretty terrible year. Between Arsenal’s miserable Premier League season and failed Europa League campaign, the departure of Arsene Wenger, and the disastrous performance by the German national team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there has been little for Ozil to celebrate. In the “what have you done for me lately” world of professional sports, Ozil is an easy target for pundits looking for a whipping boy when things go wrong, pundits who have a tendency to overlook Ozil’s successful track record in favor of a narrative that paints him as lazy and disinterested.
On Sunday, the typically quiet Ozil published an emotional three-part press release on twitter aimed at his critics while announcing his intention to retire from the German national team, citing racism and a lack of support as major contributors to his decision.
The past couple of weeks have given me time to reflect, and time to think over the events of the last few months. Consequently, I want to share my thoughts and feelings about what has happened. pic.twitter.com/WpWrlHxx74— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
There's a lot to unpack in Ozil’s statements. In the first portion of his press release, Ozil goes into great detail about his frustration with the media’s portrayal of his famous meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year (friendly reminder: we at the Short Fuse have no interest in discussing politics as this is an Arsenal blog, so please keep your comments civil and respectful). Ozil, like many soccer players, represents one country at the international level while sharing strong ties to another - in this case, Turkey. Ozil has never shied away from his pride in his Turkish roots, and felt that he has been unjustly judged for it, stating that:
For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.
The second portion of Ozil’s press release centers around betrayal and renouncement, first from certain members of the media who he believed crossed personal lines by judging his performances harshly and in a different light than his teammates due to his Turkish background. But the most gut-wrenching portion comes when sharing his heartbreak after his childhood school, Berger-feld, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, turned him away after scheduling an appearance there:
...the school told my management that they no longer wanted me to be there at this time as they “feared the media” due to my picture with President Erdogan...In all honesty, this really hurt. Despite being a student of theirs back when I was younger, I was made to feel unwanted and unworthy of their time.
The third and final section is the longest and also the most personal. In the first portion, Ozil singles out DFB President Reinhard Grindel, who he believes put undue blame for Germany’s failings on Ozil’s shoulders largely due to his Turkish upbringing and his photo with Erdogan, referring to Grindel as “belittling” and “patronizing” of Ozil’s explanation for the photo, and as a man who wanted to “boost his own political agenda,” punctuating his disdain for Grendel’s actions by saying:
In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, and an immigrant when we lose.
At this point, Ozil’s screed feels particularly impassioned. He questions the double standard to which he feels he is held and to what length he needs to go to prove his German-ness, as he feels as though he could never do enough to show his worth as a true German despite his myriad social contributions and helping win the World Cup in 2014. Desperate for the acceptance of the country he represents, he asks:
Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit?
Lastly, Ozil hammers home his pain by evoking the hurtful insults and threats hurled at him and his family from politicians and fans alike, as he circles back to the notion that he has been made to feel unwelcome despite his best efforts on the pitch. These behaviors, Ozil states, are representative of a “Germany of the past, a Germany not open to new cultures” that he wants no part of.
The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt.
In his final paragraph, Ozil makes his intentions clear, announcing that he would no longer play for the German national team “whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.” To some, this statement leaves room for Ozil to return to the national team if he believes the perceived racism and disrespect are rectified. However, it is safe to assume that Ozil has played his last match for Die Mannschaft.
Ozil’s press release was published less than 24 hours ago, and already it is garnering praise and support from many fans and pundits on social media for his sincerity and openness. It is rare for athletes to speak up in such a personal manner about their emotions, and we can imagine that it is especially difficult to do so following one of the most disappointing performances of their career. But Mesut Ozil, in doing a decidedly un-Mesut Ozil thing, has broken down a wall that had heretofore been unimpenetrable, showing a vulnerability that we aren’t accustomed to in professional athletes, and shedding a light on the ugly side of being in the public spotlight.
Time will tell what the impact of this statement will be on Ozil’s career. With a new manager at the helm and a new Premier League season in just a few weeks, it is an important period of transition for Ozil and Arsenal. There will be scrutiny, no doubt, but now Ozil has gotten this off of his chest, and he may be all the better for it. No matter how people feel about Mesut Ozil as a person or player, though, if there is one thing that everyone should take away from his entire statement, it is his last, and simplest, line:
Racism should never, ever be accepted.