At the end of July, Mesut Özil declared his resignation from the German national football team citing ‘racism and disrespect’. This came after the midfielder had been turned into something of a scapegoat for the embarrassing elimination of Germany’s team in the first round of the World Cup. What had happened? On 13 May, photos surfaced showing German players Özil and Ilkay Gündogan – who are of Turkish descent – posing with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Condemnation was swift. While some commentators rightly questioned the footballers’ judgement for letting themselves be instrumentalized by an autocratic leader in the midst of a re-election campaign, the incident was also hijacked by racists. Far-right politician Beatrix von Storch of the AfD party immediately declared that Özil – who was born in Gelsenkirchen, hometown of legendary team Schalke 04 – was not German and therefore should not play on the national team.
Shortly after Germany’s shock ousting at the World Cup, Oliver Bierhoff, the general manager of the national team, said in an interview that because of Özil’s initial silence about the Erdogan photo: ‘We should have considered being without him [at the World Cup] on a sporting level.’ But what does that even mean? Why should the problem with the photograph be on a sporting and not on a political level? His comment, like a Freudian slip, exposed Bierhoff’s desire: to blame the embarrassment of the nation’s sporting failure on its new whipping boy.
Hot on the heels of Bierhoff’s remarks, Reinhard Grindel, the president of DFB (the German Football Association) pressed Özil to respond to the criticisms, which opened the floodgates to a wave of toxic rubbish. (The footballer eventually responded to his critics, writing that the photograph ‘wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country’.) Apart from the racist attacks directed at Özil on social media, a number of (formerly) big names in German football spoke out. Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeneß claimed that Özil ‘had been playing crap for years. He last won a tackle before the 2014 World Cup’, adding a mocking – and implicitly homophobic – remark about the ‘35 million follower-boys’ of Özil’s social media accounts. Mario Basler, a loud-mouthed former national player, said Özil had the body language ‘of a dead frog’. Lothar Matthäus, World Cup winner with the German team in 1990, wrote that Özil ‘didn’t look like he felt comfortable in the national team shirt’, showing ‘no heart, no joy, no passion’.
What is shocking about these remarks is their complete denial of the truth. Özil is one of the best players in the world. In the last four years, no player has created more chances – passes for possible goals – than him: 3.34 per game. Even in Russia, Özil won 56.5 percent of his tackles, better than any other offensive player on the German team. In regard to creating chances, statistically, he was the best player of the tournament: 5.5 per game. (It wasn’t his fault that his teammates didn’t manage to make more of them.)
Apart from the racism, vitriol has also been directed against Özil’s style. Stanford University professor of literature Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht published a piece in 2012 in which he praised the great, magic moments of Özil as those ‘which are so minimal you almost can’t grasp them’, as he ‘plays passes that come out of the blue rather than out of the depths of space’. The evidence is on YouTube: Özil’s genius makes passing look easy. As with much great modern and contemporary art, the minimalism is the real provocation. It’s deemed unmanly and arrogant. As the music critic and self-confessed Özil follower-boy Klaus Walter put it, ‘the sagging shoulders, the fragility, the brooding, the melancholia that doesn’t even vanish from Mesut’s googly eyes in the moments of goal celebration’ – all of these factors were the ultimate provocation for the alpha males of German football.
It is this apparent effortlessness that prompted the German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard to document the legendary Manchester United player George Best. For Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before, 1971), Costard trained eight 16mm cameras on Best as, seemingly detached, the footballer trotted around the pitch saving his energy, only to explode into action at key moments. Best’s approach was, in fact, a strategy that served the whole. Özil’s is no different. He is a melancholic minimalist who is also – emphatically and to great effect – a team player.
Can someone please make a 2018 equivalent of Costard’s feature on Best but with Özil at its centre?
Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘The Real Provocation’.
Image: Mesut Özil. Courtesy: Getty Images
First published in Issue 198