When the most famous people in world’s most loved sport can easily be vilified for their lineage then it becomes all the more necessary to take a stand against racism.
The beautiful game, the global game, the world game: call it what you will but the power and pull that football has over all other sports is an ability to unify, to bring cultures, races and religions closer together and to help understand the vast array of people and places where the game is played.
As we’ve seen over the past month though it also has the ability to tear those threads apart to the point where a prominent Swedish international had to read a public statement decrying racism at a training session during the World Cup and then a global superstar felt compelled to announce his international retirement shortly afterwards citing the same reasons.
The cases involving Swedish winger Jimmy Durmaz and German forward Mesut Ozil unfortunately could well be a portent of things to come in an age where greater access to information, the ease of movement across nations and a virulent edge to social media commentary are all clashing.
On the one hand football is at odds with most other professions on the planet in that, at the international level, it forces you to define your identity by the use of single nationality.
It’s well and fine being a Swedish-Turkish accountant, a German-Swiss doctor or a French-Congolese teacher but in international football you are, simply, one or the other.
On the other hand though football, more than most professions on the planet, has hugely benefited from immigration and the exchange of ideas, players, coaches and other staff across nations and continents.
The recent World Cup showed this in full clarity where there was an Iranian-born Australian forward, a Brazilian-born Russian fullback, an Angolan-born Portuguese midfielder, an Argentinian-born Uruguayan goalkeeper, a Ugandan-born Danish winger, a Canadian-born Moroccan keeper, a Cameroonian-born French defender, a Jamaican-born English striker and many, many others beside.
Indeed, if you took migration out of the picture, then the French side that won the World Cup would be barely able to field a team in a six-a-side competition.
If you did the same with England, you’d be left with half a team and that’s the case for many nations in the international arena, including Germany.
Defender Niklas Sule has Hungarian roots, Antonio Rudiger’s mother is from Sierra Leone, the fathers of Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez are Ghanaian, Tunisian and Spanish respectively, and then there are the pair at the centre of the recent storm in Ilkay Gundogan and Ozil, both of Turkish background.
When the two English-based players were, along with German-born Turkish international Cenk Tosun, photographed in London with Turkish President Recep Teyyip Erdogan prior to the World Cup (mind you, at a charity event) it set off a firestorm of criticism in Germany that dominated the media landscape for weeks.
Ozil claims that one German politician, Bernd Holzhauer, called him a goat fu**er while a prominent Munich-based theatre figure, Werner Steer, told him to piss off to Anatolia.
There were also, by Ozil’s own account, numerous threatening phone calls and hate mail, sponsors that jumped ship and even his old school refused to welcome him back – all for an issue that he addressed as being completely apolitical in nature and which was merely honouring his Turkish heritage.
The President of the German Football Association (DFB), Reinhard Grindel, (a man who has previously described multiculturalism as a ‘mess’) demanded he return from his holiday to explain the photo and Ozil was hounded on media – both established and social – relentlessly and called all manner of things.
This continued through to the World Cup itself where, as Ozil explained on Twitter, one German ‘fan’ told him to “f**k off you Turkish shit, p**s off you Turkish pig.”
It was a similar story with the Swedish midfielder, Durmaz, standing in front of the entire playing and coaching staff to deliver a message denouncing the racist abuse that he faced on social media after giving away a free-kick late in a match against Germany.
In the statement Durmaz, born in Sweden to Assyrian parents, said he had been called ‘darkie, bloody Arab, terrorist and Taliban’ and it ended with the entire Swedish team supporting him by yelling ‘f**k racism.’
Unfortunately these incidents have not been isolated to the World Cup and there have been many such unfortunate events down the years but the recent cases of Durmaz and Ozil have attracted some high-profile support with the UK based anti-racism and inclusion body ‘Kick It Out’ calling the treatment of Ozil ‘extremely disappointing and racist.’
In a statement, the organisation (with close ties to FIFA and other international football bodies) said “Ozil is right to suggest that for elements of society ‘when we win I am German, but I am an immigrant when we lose’ & unfortunately black players in England, France and beyond have been treated in a similar fashion for a long time.”
Whilst these cases quite clearly are unacceptable the growing issue is – as Ozil and Durmaz noted – also one of identity.
What does it mean to be German, Swedish or indeed a host of other labels when so many people across the planet have ties to more than one land or heritage?
This is a concern shared by a host of footballers, both past and present with current France-born, Thailand international, Tristan Do, noting he had to adopt an almost chameleon-like identity depending on which country he was in.
Raised in the suburbs of Paris but with Thai and Vietnamese roots, the fullback is now a mainstay of Southeast Asia’s leading national team but as he told me the question of identity is a fluid, and often difficult one.
“It was difficult for me growing up in France because I was always the Asian guy but now in Thailand I’m seen as the foreigner.
“This is the life for people from different backgrounds where I can’t really say that I’m 100% French or Thai so it’s always been a bit confusing.”
It was a similar case for another former player in the Australian international, Ned Zelic, who was born in that nation to Croatian parents who arrived with nothing other than a single suitcase and who told TRT World that he grew up speaking Croatian on the streets of the capital Canberra.
“Back then all my cousins lived in the same street and we would play football and I never really started learning English properly until I went to school and still today I speak Croatian to my parents but in terms of my focus with football it was always Australia but at the same time you still care deeply about your family roots and I still often return to Croatia.
Zelic, who went on to play more than 30 times for the Australian national team before a falling out with the coach saw him walk away, was also targeted by some elements who misunderstood his decision to leave the Socceroos.
“My focus was always on playing for Australia and while I don’t have any issue with some others who were raised in Australia and then opted to play for Croatia (Josip Simunic prominent amongst them) in my case of leaving the national team it was simply an issue with the coach.
“Of course others tried to spin it in different ways and said things about me that weren’t true but I tried to keep it simple with no need to elaborate on the reasons.”
Having spent almost a decade in German club football where he won the league with Borussia Dortmund and finished as a runner-up in the UEFA Cup, Zelic said he was somewhat surprised by the furore that surrounded Ozil in a nation where he still spends much of the year.
“I’m a bit surprised with how it has all blown up because I’ve always felt there’s a real acceptance here of players of different backgrounds and I think if from an early age if he said he wanted to play for Turkey then there wouldn’t have been an issue with that but maybe it’s an issue of some countries being treated more sensitively than others.”
That was certainly the case as Ozil saw it where he questioned in his public statement whether what he termed the ‘racism and disrespect’ stemmed from the fact that his background is Turkish as well as the fact that he’s a Muslim.
In a world where identity is not easy to define but which is a tool that can be used against individuals to divide and fracture society it’s vital that the planet’s most popular sport continues to take a stand in rejecting the kind of racist abuse that both Ozil and Durmaz have so publicly experienced this past month.
In many ways acceptance on the sporting field can lead to acceptance in other spheres of life as well as setting examples for others to follow and it’s precisely why the strong stance taken by these two footballers should be applauded.