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. 




Germany Snatches Victory From the Jaws of Elimination

I almost had to write a third entry in a row about a favorite crashing out. There was certainly fear  of sounding like a broken record. Luckily, Tony Kroos's cheeky free kick right as time was expiring saved me from that fate.

He didn't just save me, though. Kroos, also, rescued Die Mannschaft from being the fourth of the last five defending champions to not make it out of the World Cup's group stage. It not only would have been embarrassing, but the performance would have generated critical opprobrium from their fans.  

After losing to Mexico, the game against Sweden was a must win. But just as first game went, so started their second. At almost the same exact minute as the game against Mexico, Jogi Löw's team gave up yet another goal off a counter attack. And, let's not forget, there was a legitimate shout for a Sweden penalty kick in the 12th minute. Marcus Berg was hauled down from behind by Jerome Boateng just inside the 18 yard box. 

After putting in a lackluster performance in the first 45, Germany went into the halftime looking for inspiration. They found it early in the second half. In a smash and grab moment, more reminiscent of their sides of the late 80's and early 90's, Marco Reus managed to wrong foot Swedish keeper Robin Olsen after getting the inside of his knee on a cross from Timo Werner.  

As the game went on, however, the German side returned to their pedestrian performance of the first half.  And in the 80th, Jerome Boateng received his second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Marcus Berg. He'll miss the important final group match up against South Korea. 

But only after going down a player, did the Germans start to perk up. Mario Gomez directed his header right to Olsen, who tipped it over the bar in the 87th. Five minutes later, Julian Brandt's thunderbolt managed to find the post, but not the back of the net. 

Finally, with about 20 seconds left in estimated stoppage time, Kroos stepped into the breach and saved Germany from elimination. It was do or die and the Real Madrid midfielder curled his effort into the back post from a wicked angle, fooling the goal keeper and breaking the hearts of Swedes in the stadium and watching at home. 

To be sure, they're not out of the woods yet. They still have to beat South Korea. And even then, to absolutely guarantee their ticket is punched to the knockout round, they have to win by two goals.

The craziness doesn't end there. Mexico, after storming out to two victories, could still be eliminated. All they need is a point to assure a place in the next round. But if they lose to Sweden, they could go home early. And that would be a shame.