In mid-May, two German national-team football players – Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil – together with the likewise German-born football pro Cenk Tosun, who opted to join the Turkish national team, met with Turkish President Erdogan and handed him strips from their clubs. Gundogan's jersey bore a dedication: "For my president". Erdogan's AKP Party used the images for their social media campaign, because presidential elections are coming up in Turkey at the end of June and Erdogan apparently needs to work harder than planned to mobilise support.
Ever since the meeting, the two national players have faced massive criticism, which dominated the German press for several days. During the last two World Cup friendlies against Austria and Saudi Arabia both players were whistled and booed at by their own fans – despite Ozil's early goal against Austria. Are these reactions really only about the Turkish president's human rights record, or are there perhaps other factors at play?
The two German football players have to acknowledge the legitimacy of the following charges: they naively supplied campaign support for a presidential candidate who has increasingly restricted the freedom of the press and human rights in Turkey in recent years.
Since the coup attempt in 2016 and a constitutional amendment in April 2017, Erdogan has expanded his own power base, thrown human rights activists and regime-critical journalists in jail, fired tens of thousands of alleged government opponents from the civil service and prosecuted his opponents under false pretexts, especially politicians in the Kurdish HDP opposition party.
All of this has, however, by no means made Erdogan, president of the third-largest NATO member, a persona non grata on the international stage – in London, his meeting with the footballers was a mere sideshow for a state visit during which he was received by the British head of government, Theresa May, and Queen Elizabeth II.
When Erdogan's bureau contacted Gundogan and Ozil to set up the short photo-op, the national players were therefore probably unaware, despite strained German-Turkish relations, of the ripples the encounter would cause. Due to their origin and identity as well as many relatives and friends in Turkey, Ozil and Gundogan obviously have a different take on the Turkish president than most of their German compatriots.
But the media-seasoned athletes should have realised that the AKP would exploit the meeting for its own ends. Ozil is after all one of the most prominent social media multipliers worldwide with a record 31 million likes on Facebook; self-marketing is part of the daily routine for the highly paid pro athletes and their advisors.
Prime example of "integration"?
The fault-finding in Germany was not set off only by the boost given to Erdogan's campaign and his authoritarian tendencies; another theme seemed to shine through here, namely, a questioning of the German national player's loyalty to their country.
This fits in with a social climate in which some on the political scene are trying to return to a monolithic understanding of German identity and culture once believed to be a thing of the past. Horst Seehofer as "homeland minister", for example, wants to enforce German Leitkultur, or "dominant culture", in which he sees no place for Islam.
Deviations from the assumed norm are undesirable and "integration" has become a buzzword that is increasingly being co-opted by opponents of a society characterised by cultural diversity.
FDP head Christian Lindner even went so far as to demand that Mesut Ozil ought to sing along with the German national anthem, because otherwise it would indicate an evident "identity problem that then leads to integration problems". To make matters worse, Lindner then invoked the German constitution. But the constitution mentions neither the national anthem nor any obligation to sing along with it.
The truth is that the large group of Germans with immigrant roots – who in the meantime make up almost a quarter of the population – have the right to define their own identity.
Such identities are sometimes complex: Mesut Ozil was born in Gelsenkirchen as a German of Turkish origin and played with FC Schalke, became a global star and then led Germany to its World Cup triumph in 2014; as a devout Muslim, he prays before each game and makes the pilgrimage to Mecca.
This is just as unworthy of note as the fact that he has not sung the German national anthem for years because of his background. The topic has only come up since Seehofer, Lindner and their ilk decided that they are the ones to determine what is German and what is not – exclusively, without the immigrants having any say in the matter.
Ozil, in particular, has often been labelled an "example of successful integration", including by the German Football Association DFB. But why does this even have to be certified for a German who, like Ozil and Gundogan, was born and grew up in Gelsenkirchen? The fact that he met with the Turkish president has nothing to do with it at any rate. It may be politically misguided and inappropriate for a national player who functions as a role model, but it is downright absurd to turn this incident into a debate on integration. Not to mention the fact that the right to freedom of expression also applies to Gundogan and Ozil – a right that is prominently enshrined in the constitution, unlike the national anthem.
Grist to the revisionistsʹ mill
Revisionist and racist stances have long since become socially acceptable in Germany – now the national football team has become a target. Beyond the legitimate criticism, Gundogan has also reported receiving some offensive insults after the meeting with Erdogan.
Following Alexander Gauland's racist "neighbour" remark against Jerome Boateng, the AfD party once again made the news with further openly racist insults. Alice Weidel, chair of the AfD parliamentary group, told the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit: "They would do better to try their luck on the Turkish national team."
At the very least, the fact that for days Ozil's and Gundogan's meeting with Erdogan was elevated to a kind of affair of state in Germany – first Chancellor Merkel made a statement, and then President Frank-Walter Steinmeier requested clarification – is an indicator of a lack of equanimity and self-assurance in the debate on the social transformation of German identities.
And the catcalls of the German fans against Ozil and Gundogan point in the same direction, because it is highly unlikely that the small group of booing fans are particularly interested in human rights in Turkey.
Statements such as Lindner's demand that the players sing the national anthem only further fuel the resentment that evidently still simmers in the minds of some fans. In view of a national team that is considered a role model for the new, diverse and cool immigration country of Germany, the persistent booing of two high-achieving national players with a migration history leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Professional football: human rights writ small
There is still another reason why the censure of Ozil and Gundogan appears hypocritical. While the two are rightly to blame for glossing over Erdogan's human rights violations, the international football federation FIFA, the national associations and the clubs are guilty of this to a much greater extent. Although the myth of allegedly apolitical football is repeatedly invoked, the World Cup championships as well as club football, just like other major sporting events, are not only economic heavyweights but also have massive political implications.
Even 40 years ago, German kickers were already playing in Argentina under a military dictatorship that was responsible for the deaths of 30,000 opponents. And the forthcoming World Cup in Russia certainly raises plenty of human rights concerns. Players are expected to not comment on the political situation. Suddenly, football is supposedly apolitical again.
What's more, the World Cup in Qatar is coming up in 2022, a tournament that involves much more far-reaching human rights violations, which have repeatedly been documented by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty speaks of a "World Cup of shame". Hundreds of thousands of labour migrants employed at the World Cup construction sites and elsewhere to prepare and execute the event are being systematically exploited. Hundreds have already fallen victim to the catastrophic working conditions.
For Qatar, hosting this World Cup is an important source of pride, as are its investments in top European clubs such as Paris St. Germain. FC Bayern travels to a training camp in Qatar every year, and Qatar Airways has even become one of its major sponsors. Although the country's human rights violations are well-known, the dire conditions are systematically ignored. The players are largely sworn to confidentiality.
While Ozil and Gundogan have reaped outrage for their political naivety, the clubs of the English Premier League are funded by Russian oligarchs, autocratic Middle Eastern rulers (Manchester City) or Trump supporters (FC Arsenal). Since massive cases of corruption were uncovered in FIFA and former president Sepp Blatter resigned, the new chairman, Gianni Infantino, has yet to fully investigate the corruption involving various World Cup awards, and FIFA tried to stop the publication of the so-called "Garcia" report, which was meant to shed some light on the matter in 2014.
Anyone who is really interested in ensuring that the global football business doesn't violate human rights should rightly criticise Ozil's and Gundogan's appearance with Erdogan. But the clubs and their fans should then not ignore the countless other human rights problems.
There have been plenty of opportunities to take action: for example, the last friendly match on 8 June against Saudi Arabia, a country where there is no freedom of the press, where minors are executed for taking part in demonstrations, and where, despite the liberal economic course now launched by the new crown prince, dissidents are mercilessly persecuted. Just recently, a number of women's rights activists were arrested, including the young Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been advocating for moderate reforms for years.
For all the German football fans who were really concerned about the human rights issues at stake when Ozil and Gundogan met with Erdogan, the match would have provided the perfect opportunity to protest loudly, instead of continuing to heckle the German national players for a meeting that they admitted was a mistake. For all the others, we can only say: Stop whistling!
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor