Ozil’s retirement rakes up racism debate, which should have no room in sport

World Cup winner Mesut Ozil’s statements shine a light on the role identity and race play in modern-day sport and the ugly side to the concept of diversity

analysis Updated: Jul 23, 2018 19:47 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times
Racism,Mesut Ozil,Germany
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets Mesut Ozil, London, May 13. The meeting sparked an enormous controversy. (REUTERS)

“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” This statement by World Cup winner Mesut Özil reflects the agony of dual-heritage players and shines a light on the role identity and race plays in modern-day sport. In a statement posted on Twitter, Özil , a German of Turkish descent, said that he “will no longer be playing for Germany... whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.” The outburst by the attacking mid-fielder, a key member of his country’s 2014 World Cup-winning side, took many by surprise. The timing of his statement, coming soon after most fans applauded the diversity of the French team that triumphed at the World Cup in Russia, was slightly unexpected. Özil thinks he is being made a scapegoat for the German football team crashing out of the World Cup in the first round itself. Others see in his move a reaction to the criticism he attracted for meeting controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a London event in May.

To be fair, though, Ozil is not the only modern-day sportsperson raising the issue of racism. Erving Botaka-Yobama, a 19-year-old footballer, was recently signed by Torpedo Moscow. But just six days later, his contract was terminated. The provocation? A perception that fans didn’t like the Congolese-origin player’s introduction into the mix.

Billie Jean King, one of the all time tennis greats, recently told reporters that even Serena Williams fails to get the entire crowd behind her like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal often manage to because of her skin colour. “Serena came out and got so much love on Centre Court [at Wimbledon]... I was thinking, bingo, people love her, they want the best for her and they love her story. But I have seen that she doesn’t always get the whole crowd behind her like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and I think it’s different that she’s a person of colour,” she opined.

In an ideal world, colour and race would have no role to play at the highest levels of competitive sport. It isn’t an ideal world. Reigning Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton was at the receiving end of racial abuse during a race in Barcelona in 2008. “ Formula One is a white-dominated sport. You haven’t seen any black athletes till now, have you? I mean there have been a couple of Indians who have come and broken that barrier, and now in every sport throughout the world, that’s how it has been. Tiger [Woods] came in and broke that barrier and now you have people from different cultures who are getting into golf,” he told Hindustan Times during an interview before the Indian GP in 2013. “My dad used to go and meet potential sponsors when I was younger and ask whether they would like to back a non-white driver and they used to laugh at him.”

Sportsmen are role models and it can be argued that Özil should not have posed with a leader accused of suppressing political opponents and quelling freedom of expression. But there is no justification for him being showered with a torrent of racial jibes about his heritage after Germany’s loss. Özil mentioned how he’s been called “Turkish s**t” by the same fans who once worshipped him. Do the standards change when it comes to a white player? Does it then boil down to what Özil said about being a Muslim player of Turkish origin? “Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim?” he asked.

aasheesh.sharma@htlive.com

@Aasheesh74

First Published: Jul 23, 2018 19:08 IST