Özil's Retirement Fuels Integration Conversation

Mesut Özil will be 34 by the time Qatar hosts the first ever World Cup not held in the summer. It's very likely Russia would have been his last, anyway. 

But on Sunday, he released as statement announcing his retirement from the German team. He pointed, primarily, to the sorts of racial and ethnic abuse that critics have been throwing his way as the basis for his early exit. 

Blame was also shared by the German FA, who did little to support Gelsenkirchen-born midfielder during the controversy surrounding his decision to take a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

For the Arsenal star, their lack of support was based solely on his ethnicity and faith. Özil is a practicing Muslim and can be seen praying before each game. 

Some German politicians have, ironically, pointed to the midfielder's statement as a case against integration. They feel this proves that both Turkish and Muslim citizens aren't able to assimilate. I use the term 'ironically,' because in 2016 he received a Bambi award for being an example of successful integration in Germany. 

There's lots to say here, I think. Both about Ozil's decision and this idea of integration/assimilation.

The Arsenal midfielder is third generation Turkish-German and was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Third generation can be ambiguous, but at a minimum it tells us that his family been in Germany for at least three generations. 

As an example of this ambiguity, I could either be first or second generation Iranian-American. As I was the the first generation to have been born here. Or if you count my father's naturalization, then I would be second generation. In short, if I have children, they could be described like Özil, third generation Iranian-American. 

But I digress. 

We live at a time when the idea of identity can be polarizing. Simply being hyphenated is political. Having dueling nationalities, competing identities is to some anathema to creating a unified national narrative. 

In a more globalized society, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an idea of a monolithic national identity. This is especially true in societies with strong linkages to countries through colonialism or economic trade. For Germany, the large Turkish population stems from the guest worker program that allowed Turkish workers to help fill the labor void in factories across Western Germany. Those workers ended up staying and building lives in Germany. The German authorities had to decide to either forcibly remove the guest workers or allow them to remain. After a lot of hand wringing, the Germans began recognizing the German born children of Turkish guest workers as citizens, which gave that community stronger legal status. 

But Özil isn't the only one complaining that despite their allegiance to their home country (in his case Germany), fans often speak of them in terms of not being fully accepted. For players like Karim Benzema or Romelu Lukaku, followers are willing to accept their French or Belgian status only when they're playing well, scoring goals. Fans strike another tune, however, when those players with dueling identities aren't playing well. Ozil, Benzama, and Lukaku's immigrant-origins are highlighted.

Michael Bradley or Olivier Giroud performing poorly will never have their nationality questioned. Their ethnic make up will never be a part of their team's fans. That's the privilege whiteness bestows on them. Or going further Mix Diskerud's performance will never elicit questions or comments highlighting his Norwegianness. 

On a personal level, I can identify with Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku. If I were to do something heroic, possibly by serving in the military, my Americanness would never be called into question. But, as often happens, when I'm critical of something this country has done, my Iranianness is highlighted. "Go back to you country" or "why don't you just leave, if you don't like it here" are all too familiar responses to my commentary on social issues. 

Like Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku, I'm a natural born citizen. We were born in the places we represent. But in the places we represent, our status, even if it is legal and somewhat protected, sits rather tenuously. And it is often determined solely by societies misaligned idea of how we should perform or behave. We're only counted when we do something they like. 

None of this is to say that Ozil's performance at the World Cup wasn't abysmal--it was. Or that his meeting with Erdogan wasn't misguided and the follow-up could have been handled differently. Push back on those fronts are warranted. But the critiques should be coated, not in racism or anti-Muslim sentiment, but in basic footballing terms. He looked lackluster, uninspired. His choice meet with Erdogan caused some locker room issues and his lack of response to the surrounding shitstorm made it worse. 

The fact of the matter is, even outside of sports, these conversations should be taking place. Sports could be the vehicle through which societies begin to realize that being hyphenated shouldn't be a problem.

It's instructive to know that neither side of the hyphen is sufficient enough to critique a person's character. But both sides are very real identities for those of us who are hyphenated. 

I think we can start there. 

 

 

 

The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 

 

Belgians Run Out of Ideas, France Books Trip to Moscow

The only certainty, when the teams took the field on Tuesday, was that those of us watching would be in for a treat.

The French were led by teenage phenom, and potential Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo usurper, Kylian Mbappe. Combined a formidable duo controlling the midfield in Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante fireworks were all but certain.

Their opponents, who had essentially run riot through their group competition and previous knockout stage opponents, were living up to a new moniker, one that harkens back to bygone era of American baseball. The Big Red Machine. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku seemed finally destined to break Belgium's title drought. 

And for the first twenty-five minutes, the Red Devils certainly looked like forcing their will on the game. They possessed, they attacked, they prodded the French defense. Hazard launched attacks from the left, De Bruyne from the right while combining with Nacer Chadli who was playing in an unfamiliar outside right back position. 

But no matter how hard they tried, they simply couldn't manage to unlock the French defense. Their best chances came from Hazard in the 15th and 18th minutes. Those failed as the Chelsea midfielder rushed his first shot and had his second pushed over bar via deflection from an unwitting French defender, Raphaël Varane.

A few moments later Toby Alderweireld's quick shot off a poor clearance forced his club teammate, Hugo Lloris, into a reaction save. With a bit more pace, it just might have beaten the French goalkeeper. 

Then as if some random force shifted it's weight snuffing out the fire fueling the Belgian machine, the momentum shifted in favor of France. Olivier Giroud and Benjamin Pavard miss clear chances. The Stuttgart defender, after a brilliant through ball from Mbappe, having his effort blocked by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' big right foot.

Halftime didn't temper the French ascendency, in fact they came back burning hotter than they had at the end of the first 45. 

The French earned a corner early in the second half. Antoine Greizmann's in-swinging cross was met by Samuel Umtiti, who's darting run to the near post left him free from his mark, Alderwield, rose to head the ball, beating out Maurane Fellani, and steered the ball past Curtios at the near post.

France was up 1-0. And it very likely should have been a two goal lead just a few mins later. Giroud couldn't finish after Mbappe provided yet another sublime distribution. The French center forward, who's had a miserable time finding the back of the net in Russia, should have buried his chance on the first touch. Instead, his attempt to control then finish gave Mousa Dembélé enough time to slide in and block his shot. 

The Big Red Machine was all out of ideas on how to crack the French defense. Hazard and De Bruyne, no matter how hard they worked, couldn't manage to combine with Lukaku. And at times seemed their own worst enemy by over complicating possession, finding themselves in self-imposed defensive cul-de-sacs. 

With the insertion of Dries Mertens, who started on the bench for the second game in a row, replacing Dembélé, who was, outside the sliding block on Giroud to prevent a second goal for France, essentially ineffectual all game, there seemed to be a brief moment of hope. Mertens was initially more effective on the right flank launching a few crosses that seemed to cause the French defense a few problems. Fellani got his head on one, narrowly missing the bottom right corner. But, Lloris looked to have it covered. 

There was a legitimate shout for a free kick after a tackle by Giroud on Hazard. The referee waved it off, unfortunately. It certainly would have been in a dangerous position, but there's no way to know if it would have resulted in a goal. 

Nonetheless, as the referee blew the final whistle, Belgian players, in what has been a tradition across sports for losing teams in these types of games, collapsed to ground in agony. Meanwhile, French players sprinted across the pitch in ecstasy. They're on their way to Moscow.

World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.

 

Messi and Ronaldo Exit Stage Left

When the final whistle blew on June 26th, pundits, fans, and even the most casual of observers were drawn to the top half of the left side of the knockout bracket. Uruguay v Portugal and Argentina v France were intriguing, not because of the match-ups themselves, but because of what they could yield.

A Portugal v Argentina, ahem Ronaldo v Messi matchup would be a show stopper. It'd be the type of game every advertiser could only dream of--except maybe if it had been in the finals. 

Both players would have much to prove. Despite winning nearly every major trophy, neither have won the World Cup. Ronaldo, at least, won the European Championship two years ago in France--but some would be quick to point out, he wasn't on the pitch for the victory. Messi has managed to earn the ire of many Albiceleste fans, who claim the Barcelona star plays harder for his club than his nation. 

But the hopes for a dream World Cup quarterfinal match up were, for fans and marketing managers alike, all for naught. 

Argentina succumbed to France side that seemed finally willing to fire on all cylinders, even if it took well going down 2-1 to realize their potential. For Messi, it seemed more like a necessary exercise that capped off a miserable Russian adventure. His teammates, and really the Argentine manager, seemed far too willing to let their talisman take over answering nearly every question tactically. With a team chock full of super stars, it was confounding to see just how anemic they looked in attack. And how cynical they looked in defense, reckless tackle after reckless tackle made it surprising they ended with eleven players on the field. 

But why couldn't Jorge Sampaoli find a way to fit Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Ganzalo Higuain, in the lineup at the same time as Messi? Some argued it's because they all played similar styles. But wouldn't you want to have your best scoring and creative threats on the pitch simultaneously? It seemed, though, being content to let Messi carry the team was the overall strategy. Everyone else would fall in line. 

Messi, surely, is a game changer. That type of superstar coming once (or twice in this case) a generation. But even the most successful ones--Pele, Diego Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo--had teammates who didn't just pull their own weight, but also stepped into the breech when their leader was having a bad day. Those role players turned on field leaders were in short supply and thus Messi and Company are headed home. 

For Portugal, a team that seemed far more adventurous and unified than Argentina, they fell victim to a surprisingly in-form Uruguay team. The South American side's strong central defense duo, who play together at the club level too, made one mistake during the Round of 16 match up. Portuguese defender Pepe made them pay. But it wasUruguay's dynamic due from Salto, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who ran riot at the opposite end of the pitch with Cavani burying two wonderful goals--the first, possibly the best worked combination play of the tournament. 

It's not a stretch so say that Portugal's early exit isn't surprising. Maybe I'm wrong. But even when one takes into account their title in France two years ago, we'd all be remiss to think it was anything but a fluke. The Ronaldo led side couldn't win a match in the group phase and only progressed because of the expanded tournament field. They finished third to Hungary and Iceland. But it took them all the way to the semi-finals against Wales to win their one and only match during regulation time (they won the finals vs host France via a 109th minute goal by Eder). 

Unlike the Argentines, the Portuguese side played with a bit more tactical and strategic unity. They had skilled players outside of Ronaldo, but nothing of the firepower Sampaoli refused to utilize. Despite the lack of reserves, Portugal was far more entertaining and we were left knowing they put everything into each performance in Russia. Ronaldo was certainly impressive during the tournament, scoring a hat trick in his first group match versus Spain. But where Messi's teammates' ill-discipline left him hanging, Ronaldo could play knowing his teammates wouldn't let him down because of lack of concentration. Rather they'd simply be out classed. Nonetheless the European Champions are headed home early too. 

Some thought that a Ronaldo v Messi match up in the quarter finals would end the debate over who's better. I highly doubt that. If their multiple head to head match-ups when playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona haven't solve that riddle, one match at the World Cup wouldn't likely tip the balance. 

Both teams are home by now, leaving exactly when they should have. Although, Argentina didn't deserve to make out of their group. They were far too uninspiring to have been rewarded with an extra game.

Now we're left with a tournament bereft of a mega star, but plenty eagerly waiting to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for their shared throne.