Mesut Özil, a German midfielder who came under criticism for posing for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Sunday he was quitting the national team because of racism he has faced as a player of Turkish descent.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil wrote, describing a double standard that led him to hang up his national jersey: “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t.”
Özil’s repudiation of the German team marked the latest chapter in a searing European debate over migration and national identity. A debate so often conducted in terms of security and terrorism seemed to take on a different tone on the sidelines of the World Cup.
The diverse rosters of many European squads prompted fresh consideration of the question: What does it mean to be German or French? A majority of players on France’s team, which clinched the 2018 World Cup title, trace their roots beyond French borders. To some, the image of the many-hued team offered a riposte to far-right politicians who play up only the costs of immigration. The symbolism of successful, multiethnic teams was especially powerful in a moment of anxiety about borders, extremism and national culture, several years after the Syrian civil war created the largest human displacement since World War II.
“Africa won the World Cup! Africa won the World Cup!” chanted Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” celebrating France’s victory as well as the diverse makeup of its team. Noah, who is a native of South Africa, faced blowback from France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, who accused the late-night host of belittling the French identity of the players — and thus playing into the hands of the far-right. Noah said he had the opposite intention.
“Black people all over the world were celebrating the African-ness of the French players,” Noah replied. “Not in a negative way, but rather in a positive way, going, ‘Look at these Africans who can become French.’ ”
What Özil’s departure reveals is that the process of becoming European can be more vexed than a soccer roster might suggest.
A practicing Muslim born to Turkish parents, he said he values both parts of his identity.
“I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” wrote Özil, who was recognized as an example of successful integration with a prestigious German media award in 2010. “During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are values that I think about to this day.”
The desire to cherish his Turkish roots, Özil suggested, was what led him to meet in May with Erdogan in London, along with Ilkay Gündogan, a midfielder for Manchester City as well as for the German national team. “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,” Özil wrote.
But the photo caused an uproar in Germany, which is home to the largest number of Turkish people outside Turkey and yet maintains strained relations with the nation. Lawmakers in Berlin have blocked Erdogan from hosting political rallies on German soil, and they viewed the photos with the soccer stars as a public-relations victory for the strongman president. A spokesman for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said the image “invited misunderstandings.”
“The DFB, of course, respects the special situation for our players with migrant backgrounds, but football and the DFB stands for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect,” Reinhard Grindel, the DFB president and a former member of the German Parliament, said in a statement. Some politicians accused the soccer stars of lacking loyalty for Germany and said they should not be allowed to compete in the World Cup.
At the time, Özil offered no comment. But his statement on Sunday took aim at Grindel, whom he accused of incompetence and racial animus. “The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt,” Özil wrote, adding that, “People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has many players from dual-heritage families.”
Grindel did not respond over the weekend. Cem Özdemir, a leading Greens lawmaker, said Özil was wrong to pose with Erdogan but echoed the player’s criticism of the soccer association, accusing Grindel of “hacking our history of integration to pieces.”
“Do they want young German-Turks to start playing for Erdogan soon?” Özdemir, who is of Turkish descent, wrote on Twitter. “The DFB needs a new beginning.”
Özil was equally harsh on the media, saying German newspapers implied that the dust-up over the meeting with Erdogan figured in the team’s stumble in Russia. Bild, Germany’s top-selling tabloid, fired back Sunday, accusing the athlete of “whining” and disparaging his skills.
Members of the Turkish government lauded Özil for his decision. Abdulhamit Gul, the justice minister, congratulated the midfielder for scoring the “most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism.”
In his statement, Özil protested the outsize attention paid to his Turkish identity. Friends with Polish roots, he observed, were not set apart as German-Polish. His contributions — from fulfilling basic responsibilities, such as paying taxes, to “winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014″ — have not been enough to immunize him, he said.
He wondered: “I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”
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