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. 

 

 

 

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.