MESUT Özil doesn’t talk about politics, at least according to an interview he gave with the Süddeutsche Zeitung last year. Is that simply to avoid creating controversy, or is it because he doesn’t quite get it?
The latter would certainly explain why he was apparently happy to meet burgeoning autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in London this week, together with fellow Turkish German footballers İlkay Gündoğan and Cenk Tosun.
Although all three were born in Germany (Cenk Tosun has chosen to represent Turkey, however), they represent the vast Turkish diaspora that Erdoğan has been courting ahead of this year’s snap presidential election. He has therefore cultivated a unique position among the Turkish community abroad; it was all smiles at the Hotel Four Seasons as Gündoğan presented Erdoğan with a signed Manchester City shirt reading ‘to my honoured president, with the greatest respect.’
Germany – which has a strained relationship with Erdoğan, and his thinly-veiled election campaign events in particular – has been justifiably outraged. One politician even suggested the players should be banned from Germany’s World Cup squad.
The invective has been led by Cem Özdemir, who said ‘the federal president of a German national team player is called Frank-Walter Steinmeier.’ Özdemir, a Turkish German himself, is a leading Green party politician and a fierce critic of Erdoğan – death threats from the president’s supporters mean he is under constant armed guard. He continued, ‘they should not, as role models, celebrate the corruption, oppression and hatred of an aging autocrat, but rather represent the fundamental democratic values of Germany. That should be clear.’
Is this criticism fair? How much do footballers really have to represent the ‘democratic values’ of their home nation? After all, weren’t they, as Gündoğan suggested, merely showing ‘respect for the office of president and for [their] Turkish roots’?
The fact is, football is inherently political. When the Argentina national team declares ‘las Malvinas son Argentinas’, or when Pep Guardiola comes out in support of jailed Catalan politicians, they are doing so knowingly to influence politics. Big-name players like Gündoğan and Özil need to appreciate that they have an outsized influence on how people view the world, and that by meeting a despot like Erdoğan they are implicitly facilitating his election campaign and legitimising his anti-democratic values.
When Germany takes to the field at the World Cup, they will be doing so as ambassadors for their nation, representing in some way the values that the country wants to project. Özil and Gündoğan are – wittingly or unwittingly – undermining these values, as national team players, by lending cachet to Erdoğan’s: the suppression of democracy, jailing journalists, and alienating Turkish immigrant populations from the majority.
Maybe they’re simply unaware of Erdoğan’s campaign of repression, but footballers can’t hide behind their ignorance. They know they represent their nation, and they know their actions are watched by millions of admiring fans – particularly children. Mesut Özil doesn’t talk about politics, but it doesn’t take a keen political mind to consider ‘maybe I should think about what message I’m sending.’