Can Europe Make It?

Radical-right backlash against Games of Belonging: the case of Mesut Özil

Özil, like many others, has repeatedly stated that he would prefer to play for both national football teams if international football regulations made it possible.

Özgür Özvatan
19 February 2019


Signboard replaced outside hometown of Mesut Ozil in Turkey, removing photo of him in a German jersey in July 2018. Gurkay GüNdogan/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The recent case of Mesut Özil has shown a severe rupture in relations between German-Turks and German natives, which has been a long time coming, but went unrecognized while the football national team put it in the shade. However, it was precisely because of the earlier sporting success of the German squad that the Özil case escalated into a fierce conflict. Three crucial ingredients played a role in this escalation: the failure of political messaging on national football-team diversity, some setbacks in Germany-Turkey relations, and the rise of the populist radical right in both Turkey and Germany.

The staging of Games of Belonging

International football events include Games of Belonging for immigrant footballers; a play that evolves in three acts. In the first pre-match act, an approaching international football fixture prompts the media to ponder whether immigrant players feel they belong to nation X or Y, Germany or Turkey. National belonging here is a zero-sum game: the more one belongs to nation X, the less one is able to belong to nation Y.

In a matchday second act, nationhood is performed symbolically. A case in point is Özil’s 2010 handshake with German chancellor Angela Merkel in the locker-room after an international match against Turkey in Berlin, when he was booed by German-Turks. It was ironic that Özil scored against the national team of his “ethnic roots”, which demonstrated the zero-sum game impeccably. Here was a second-generation German-Turk opting for Germany and shaking off his ethno-cultural backpack with the goal that he scored.

Act 3. In various after-match episodes separate from the event, those subjected to these belonging debates become active participants and insist that their choice for one nation does not fairly represent their transnational feelings of belonging to both Germany and Turkey equally. As many other immigrant footballers around the globe have proclaimed, Özil has also repeatedly stated that he would prefer to play for both national football teams if international football regulations made it possible.

Disenchantment and the growth of a nativist backlash against Games of Belonging

In 2009, Özil forfeited Turkish membership, after he chose to play for the German football national team. He was framed as an “ethnic traitor”, a “Turk who had defected”, lost touch with his “roots”. On the other hand, Mesut Özil was celebrated as the poster boy for immigrant integration politics in Germany, where he was, for instance, awarded a national immigrant integration prize in 2011 and seen as one of the most influential role models to promote second- and third-generation German-Turks’ identification with Germany.

After the 2018 photo with Erdogan, Özil’s reconciliation with his Turkish identity was widely recognized. On the other hand, Özil was denounced for paying court to an autocrat, which was framed as the one thing a “true” German would not do. In fact, as many pundits contended, native political and national football association representatives were very busy wooing autocrats themselves in former years. But immigrant national team footballers have to accomplish more than natives. Any slippage, and immigrants’ full national membership is questioned. Natives on the other hand, may risk being banned from the national football team in a worst case scenario, yet their national belonging remains beyond question.

Public photos of Özil and Erdogan have appeared regularly since 2011, and he always prayed before matches, sharing a post of his pilgrimage to Mecca before the 2016 European Championship. Özil was neither fully reconciled to his Turkish identity at that stage nor banned from German national identity, though the AfD party had unsuccessfully tried to create a scandal around events related to Özil before 2018. Why then was there no escalation before 2018?

To begin with, the interplay of the rise of populist radical-right parties in Germany and Turkey with failed political messaging by traditional parties aggravated the political context for national football-team diversity.

After ongoing blame-games from 2016 onwards, German-Turkish relations suffered a severe setback. Disenchantment with traditional parties grew after their promises to tighten the screws on Erdogan were not in the end delivered. When racial outnumbered economic concerns, segments of the national conservatives from right to left identified the AfD party as the only saviour capable of standing for “German values” (most notably, democracy) and defending them against “the Sultan of the Bosphorus” and his German-based Turkish supporters.

Ever since the 2017 election campaign, traditional parties have pursued disenchanted national-conservative voters by raising a critical voice on the ”Turkish issue”. Özil could not escape the recurring nationalist German-Turkish blame-games expounded by the already established populist radical-right in Turkey and its consolidating counterpart in Germany. Failed political messaging by traditional parties, and unmet promises, facilitated the mainstreaming of radical-right narratives which defended secessionist expressions of nativist nationhood.

Finally, the economic exploitation of national football-team diversity caused frustration among German-Turks. In his post-World-Cup statement, Özil lamented the racism against him because of his Turkish and Muslim identity. Özil sided with French Karim Benzema and Belgian Romelu Lukaku, stating: “I am a German when we win, an immigrant when we lose.”

For Turkish immigrants, the case of Özil reflected the frustrating double logic they encountered over the decades. They were turned to enthusiastically when needed to rebuild the country (and its economy) but soon discriminated against once the work was done. German-Turks united against such an obvious anti-Turkish racism. And the repeated charges of Nazism raised by Erdogan against Germany even made some identify ‘cultural traits’ of racism among Germans. The latter marked a dangerous trend, as such propositions very quickly “close down” ethno-cultural boundaries, resulting in ethno-cultural fragmentation and polarization.

This frustration of immigrants can only be prevented if ethnic diversity is communicated, explicitly or implicitly, as a basic democratic right instead of a conditional economic promise of success. In fact, if ethnic diversity is linked to economic success, it may soon be connected to failure as well. Merkel’s “golden handshake” in 2009 and the absence of protection for Özil in 2018 are a good example of how easily “things have changed”.

Failed messaging culminated in a frustrated backlash against immigrant integration politics, while the German majority and Turkish immigrants were on their way to “opening up” their horizons vis-à-vis each other. In 2018, the mainstreaming of radical-right narratives in Germany and Turkey exploited the Mesut Özil case and painted German-Turkish games of belonging in a nativist light. It seems very unlikely that international football will introduce transnational regulations for immigrant footballers in this current period of ‘ethno-national rebirth’.


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