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Uri Levy

Özil's departure raises larger questions about identity and immigration

Mesut Ozil retired from the German football team on Sunday, agd 29 [FIFA]

Date of publication: 26 July, 2018

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With his departure from the German national squad, Mesut Ozil has delivered an important message about the tensions facing many footballers in Western Europe, writes Uri Levy.
With one searing sentiment, Mesut Özil retired from the German national football team: "When we are winning I am German, but when we lose I am an immigrant."

In an open letter to his fans on social media, the Arsenal talisman spoke about the "racist and discriminatory attitude" of the German media and sponsors  - and particularly the president of the German Association, Reinhard Grindel.

In May, Özil joined Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a joint photo-op, along with another German-Turkish player, Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City. The photo went viral and sparked controversy, kicking off a nationalist storm in Germany.

The midfielder's demonisation was only intensified with the national team's earlier-than-expected exit from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Özil discussed a few very sensitive questions in German society. Immigration, racism, the eternal question of "who is a true German?" - and challenged the whole issue of national identity in our time, while examining the acceptance different cultural identities in Europe in 2018.

There has yet to be a football player of Özil's calibre - a world-class superstar - who has retired from their national team in such a way, detailing the decision across four pages, with such depth - including personal statements and accusations against some of the most senior football personalities in his country and in Europe.

Özil's letter teaches a great deal about the direction in which football and footballers have journeying for some time



His resignation has raised questions both in Germany and across Europe.

Who is a truly "loyal" to their country or nation? Who is faithful to the society in which they live? Can someone emphasise a complex identity reliant on more than one ethnic descent? Is there such a thing as multiculturalism? How strong is the "politics of identity" that has emerged in recent years? What are we - representatives of our nations, or of the places from which our family comes? To what extent is the gap between Islam and Eastern cultures and European cultures unbridgeable? Is there a quiet war going on here? If so, who will win? And does history repeat itself?

Özil's retirement letter is an important and fascinating document, which teaches a great deal about the direction in which football and footballers have journeying for some time. It touches on a real, relevant social discourse that has recently permeated societies around the world.

The 29-year-old has attracted more of the criticism he complained of since the letter's publication

Özil made his debut for Germany in 2009, and has made 92 appearances, scored 23 goals and provided a further 40 goal assists. He took Germany to third place in the 2010 World Cup and won it in 2014.

He was named German player of the year in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. He also won the "Bambi Prize" in 2010 in the "Integration" category. He was inducted into the German Legion of Honour with the Silver Laurel Leaf award in 2014, and was named Germany Football Ambassador in 2015.

But the 29-year-old has attracted more of the criticism he complained of since the letter's publication. Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness slammed Özil. "He's been playing dirt for years", he said. "He last won a tackle before the 2014 World Cup. And now he hides himself and his s*** performance behind this photo... his 35 million follower boys, who of course do not exist in the real world, think he has played excellently if he plays a cross to a man."

Hoeness was speaking to Bild. "Whenever we played against Arsenal, we played over him, because we know he's the weak point," he added. Hoeness was released last year after spending two years in jail for a 28 million euro ($32.7m) tax fraud. He was re-elected Bayern Munich president nine months after his release.

The Özil saga has definitely opened a gaping wound in German society. Yet this story also reflects the tension that can exist in a populist-dominated world between Middle Eastern, Muslim, African and other cultures when facing Western European cultures.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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