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'an immigrant when we lose': On Embracing an Open Society

Published July 30, 2018 by Jessica Tearney-Pearce

FIFA World Cup 2018, Football, Multiculturalism, Religious Diversity, Mesut Özil, Immigration, Racism, Religious Intolerance

After some time recovering from the World Cup, Jessica Tearney-Pearce reflects on the tournament and on communities of global citizens.

So, le foot est rentré chez lui…

I experienced this year's World Cup in Bari, Cambridge, London, Barcelona, Leeds, and Oxford; in bars, pubs, hotel rooms, airports, planes, trains, buses, as well as on my phone at parties, meetings, conferences, and under the table at dinners. But the greatest diversity in my football watching this summer was not in cities, drinking establishments, nor forms of transportation; rather it was in the people who accompanied it. Highs (like Portugal v Spain) and lows (France v Denmark/Uruguay v Saudi Arabia – impossible to decide which was more dire) I saw surrounded by colleagues, friends, and strangers from and supporting probably every team participating.

Thus is academic life.

Existing in such an international, generally tolerant, bubble allows me to be blissly oblivious that it's not normal. Various other spheres of business and culture share these cosmopolitan characteristics with academia. One is football. Our salaries may not be comparable (!), but the linguistic, cultural, social, and religious diversity of high level football teams, particularly in Europe, means many footballers are multi-lingual and attuned to and understanding of different cultures and ways of life. We see this at Champions' League press conferences, and it was demonstrated many times at the World Cup by, for example Paul Pogba (formerly & currently Manchester United via Juventus), who speaks at least English and Italian in addition to his native French, answering questions in Spanish, despite not ever having lived or played in a Spanish-speaking country.

The tournament was won by a French team of diverse linguistic, cultural, and religious heritages which has already led to claims, like those in 1998, that this is a victory for unity, multiculturalism, and mutual understanding. However I remain skeptical about this truly being able to map onto the opinions and experiences of general publics; it didn’t in 1998, why will it now? Yes, there's an extent to which, at club level, players from different cultures and religions can open the eyes of those who would never encounter them, as the advent of Mo Salah's success enlightened Liverpool fans re the specifics of Ramadan last season. But the brevity of national teams' camps and tournaments, and the embeddedness of ideas and opinions within nation states, seem to work against these kind of attachments – and/or any consequent meaningful reorientation of attitudes and policies – at popular and political levels at home. Is there even a genuine appetite for such change?

Occupants of the bubbles I described above, can be naïve about – or, perhaps more accurately, presume we're immune from – the views, monocultures and consequences of opinions outside. Because footballers exist in 'international' worlds, moving across borders, having team mates from every part of the globe, speaking a range of languages, they too can easily be befuddled by widespread parochialism. People who don't leave where they're from regularly (or ever) and who don't often encounter in real life people of other linguistic, cultural, social, or religious backgrounds – although they may encounter stereotypes of them – can continue to hold opinions those of us inside the bubbles struggle to fathom, and vice-versa; we're mutually incomprehensible.

But, narrow experiences and perspectives can be preyed upon by those with power to advance harmful agendas, and can render people easily subject to manipulation from the media and politicians. In the current climate of acknowledged election fixing and so-called 'fake news', I hardly need to rehearse the details of this.

Last Monday, a series of events, which highlight all these things, burst a bubble.

An Arsenal (via Schalke, Bremen, and Real Madrid) attacking mid-fielder, 5-time German footballer of the year (3 times since the 2014 World Cup win, including in 2017), who has 92 caps, 23 goals and 40 assists for his national team, released a 3 part statement via various social media channels, and resigned from international football.

Mesut Özil is a Muslim of Turkish ancestry. But, Özil was born, educated, and trained as a footballer in Germany. He is also the third generation of his family to be born in Germany. The immigration rules surrounding the Turkish 'guest workers' (Gastarbeiter) who arrived mostly in the 1960s are complicated – the situation of Germans from immigrant backgrounds has been discussed on this blog before by Jan-Jonathan Bock and Finn Schulze-Feldmann. But Özil qualifies to play for the German national team and, despite significant pressure from Turkey, he's always been adamant about wanting to play for the country of his birth; and has done so to the highest level.

Özil's statement came as the consequence of events sparked by the release of a photo of him and fellow German footballer İlkay Gündoğan (Manchester City) with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taken when the latter visited London in May this year. But Özil has suffered serious criticism from the press and former footballers in Germany for years, despite his evident and recognised talents and success, and has now become the singular scapegoat for the poor performances and early exit of Die Mannschaft at this year's World Cup.

These criticisms, and the reaction to the recent incident is harsher than what his colleagues face and it's difficult not to attribute this to racism and religious intolerance. Indeed, the anti-discrimination football charity 'Kick it Out' have issued a statement in support of the player. Explaining his reasons for quitting, Özil wrote: 'I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect. I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don't…. I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.'

Migration is a hot agenda right now, and issues relating to migrants are at the fore in a climate of hard politics on the right and left. Some politicians and authority figures may not believe that one can be a 'global citizen', but what they don't realise is that, for many who are (or whose families have been) itinerant and/or who descend from expats and migrants, they are only 'global citizens'. They may identify more particularly with one place or another, but ultimately they are from multiple places and have multiple identities.


The term 'migrant' may conjure up a particular image in 2018, usually of a young male of Asian or African origin moving north and westwards (or very south and eastwards) seeking employment and a better life, but in sixteenth-century England those with the same motives were French Protestants escaping persecution; concurrently in North Africa, they were Iberian Muslims and Jews fleeing execution and forced conversion in Castile/Aragon; in mid–late 19th-century England and the US, migrants were Irish escaping famines and disease; in early–mid 20th-century Australia they were British seeking a better life after returning from wars in which they fought for a country that then couldn't or wouldn't support them; in mid-20th century western Europe, they were Jews. Migrants regularly work harder, under worse conditions, and with less remuneration and fewer benefits. They make significant and worthy contributions to the countries they relocate to, and often develop greater attachments and loyalties to them than those born locally; this all in spite of suffering abuse, policies designed to keep them 'outside', and accusations of not belonging because of their accent or appearance.

The treatment of Özil in Germany, is comparable to the treatment of England and Manchester City player Raheem Sterling in the UK. Born in Jamaica, Sterling is British and represents England, but is constantly subject to criticism, on footballing and other bases to the extent that it's become an ironic joke among the liberal media to predict what the tabloids might blame on him next. Like with Özil, it's difficult not to attribute this to racism and religious intolerance, given the contrast in tone and excess when compared with criticism of other English footballers – on and off the pitch. Don't get me wrong, there are various grounds on which these prejudices exist; white English footballers from working-class backgrounds suffer similarly. The point is that, on the basis of some aspects of their identity which have nothing to do with their qualities as footballers, these players are targeted.

In response to Özil's statement, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said 'I don't think that the case of a multi-millionaire living and working in Britain says much about integration in Germany'. Yet, how much footballers earn is not their decision. They do though decide to regularly not only donate huge amounts to charitable causes, but also to work with those causes to raise the latters' profile. Nevertheless, this issue of money is often hurled as an insult at the likes of Sterling and Özil. More crucially, that the attack has been lodged at Özil says a lot about integration in Germany. As he pointed out, 'Lothar Matthaus (an honorary German national team captain) met with another world leader [Russian President Vladimir Putin] … and received almost no media criticism'. Özil asks, 'if the media felt that I should have been left off the World Cup squad, then surely he should be stripped of his honorary captaincy? Does my Turkish heritage make me a more worthy target?'

It seems so.

Yes, Özil should have explained earlier his reasons for being photographed with Erdoğan, but it's understandable that he didn't want to bend to the demands of a DFB (German Football Association) which was treating him intolerably. Yes his international career was probably over anyway. But, after years of criticism and now this blatant racism, him speaking out, whilst knowing that German politicians and footballing authorities like DFB President Reinhard Grindel and Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeneß are unlikely to come off worse than him, is ballsy and should be recognised as such.

This is a footballer who was the young player of the tournament at South Africa 2010; whose move from Real Madrid to Arsenal in 2013 made Cristiano Ronaldo throw an enormous tantrum because Özil created his goals; who legendary Arsenal striker Ian Wright regularly claims he wishes he'd played with. He is the king of the silky pass; a self-proclaimed 'Mozart' of creating goals. He is, and has been since 2010, my favourite currently-playing player.

The guy is excellent at football. But like with Sterling in England, the loud voices in Germany who dislike Özil never just allow him and those like him to be excellent at football. Noone should have to work harder and be better than their peers in their endeavours just because in some aspect of their identity they are not considered worthy by those who criticise them. Yet, both outside – and also inside – the bubbles, this remains the reality.

Özil's statement is emotional and furious. It's difficult to challenge. He could have just walked away. But he spoke out. And the media and DFB response has only reinforced the truth of his sentiment. He conflates racist remarks about him by some German politicians and public officials with offensive comments made by fans, condemns the officials and media using the photograph 'to express their previously hidden racist tendencies', and cites 'hate mail, threatening phone calls and comments on social media' received by him and his family. For Özil, these 'all represent a Germany of the past, a Germany not open to new cultures, and a Germany that I am not proud of. I am confident that many proud Germans who embrace an open society would agree with me'.

Jessica Tearney-Pearce is a Woolf Institute Cambridge PhD candidate at St John's College and in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. She is a 'global citizen' who doesn't know or care if she's Irish, Scottish, French, English, British, a Kiwi, or a mermaid for that matter. Jessica's research focuses on inter- and intra-cultural and confessional communication and the sharing of practices, spaces, and ideas in the pre-modern Mediterranean, and her current project examines religions at sea and in maritime contexts.



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