MUNICH >> For Reinhard Grindel, the leader of Germany’s soccer federation, this has become an awkward moment to promote his country’s campaign to stage European Championship in 2024, or, really, anything having to do with a national team program that only months ago was considered a symbol of unity for the country and one of the most unstoppable forces in sports.
Earlier this month, a mob waving German flags and flashing Nazi salutes rampaged through the streets of Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, chasing dark-skinned bystanders as police, for a time outnumbered, could only watch.
After the images were broadcast around the world, they became yet another event for Grindel and the German federation to explain away. For weeks, the federation, known as the DFB, has attempted to answer accusations of racism and discrimination stemming from the ugly departure this summer of Mesut Özil, a World Cup-winning playmaker, from the national team after a historically awful performance from the defending world champions in the World Cup.
“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil wrote in a lengthy screed a week after the end of the World Cup, in which Germany finished last in its group, its worst showing since 1938.
Now the allegation of bigotry and discrimination from a soccer icon with roots in Germany’s sizable Turkish community has become a central focus in Germany’s campaign to stage the 2024 Euro, soccer’s biggest tournament outside the World Cup. The only opponent — Turkey.
Grindel, the 61-year-old bespectacled former politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said Özil’s statement represented a low point for him, even lower than the moment South Korea eliminated Germany from the World Cup. Özil had taken aim at Grindel personally, perhaps even more so than the federation he leads.
Özil’s comments — whether fair or not — represent a fundamental challenge to an image the soccer federation has been keen to cultivate since it successfully played host to the 2006 World Cup. Beginning with that event, the DFB has showcased soccer as a force for racial and religious integration. Twelve years on, if a figure like Özil, heralded as a symbol of integration, could feel compelled to walk out on such terms, what does it say about modern Germany as it seeks to secure its first major tournament since that cheery month of sunshine and soccer 12 years ago?
“We all thought sport would be capable of integrating people into society, but it was not true,” Gunter Gebauer, a philosopher and expert on sports at the Free University of Berlin, said.
Özil’s incendiary words came after the player and the federation made a series of missteps. The crisis started in May, before the World Cup, with an ill-advised photo op in London. Özil and a fellow national team player of Turkish descent, Ilkay Gundogan, posed for a photograph with Turkey’s authoritarian and nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a day before the provisional German squad was due to be announced.
The players faced a severe and immediate backlash. Members of the German media questioned their loyalty to their birth country, while members of the public took to social media to post abusive messages and threats.
Joachim Löw, Germany’s national team soccer coach; Oliver Bierhoff, its general manager; and Grindel met to figure out how to manage the crisis. They decided to keep the two players on the squad, with reports saying Grindel had initially wanted Özil barred. The two players then met with Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after the criticism of their meeting with the Turkish leader.
Gundogan, who required the services of a psychologist amid the furor, released a statement, explaining his motivations for the meeting. Özil decided not to, after being told by federation officials that the issue was over and that he should concentrate on preparing himself for the World Cup, according to people close to him.
Fans jeered the players each time they touched the ballin the team’s final tuneup before heading to Russia, and even cheered when Gundogan was fouled by an opponent. Özil’s childhood school in Gelsenkirchen, where he has backed programs from children with immigrant backgrounds, canceled a visit he was due to make before the World Cup.
Banking on a deep run in Russia, senior federation officials assumed the country would quickly forget those errors. Then came losses to Mexico and South Korea, in which Özil was far from the worst performer on the German roster. But he received plenty of criticism, anyway, for creating a rift within the team, and there were accusations that he didn’t play like a German.
Though Grindel said in an interview with The New York Times that he did not blame Özil for Germany’s World Cup travails, he expected the 29-year-old to clear up the reasons for his meeting with Erdogan. Özil had previously met with Erdogan about a dozen times, with little blowback.
“The only thing I asked Mesut for is also to make such a statement, especially bring fans and Mesut together again because my expectation was that he would play in our team also in the future,” he said.
Cem Ozdemir, one of Germany’s most prominent politicians of Turkish descent, said posing withErdogan “was disrespectful to those who are fined in Turkey or sitting arbitrarily in its prison.” Germany has been particularly vocal about the Turkish government’s jailing of political campaigners and journalists, including German passport holders.
Grindel and German officials have recognized they should have acted more decisively when the controversy first stirred. Instead, they allowed it to engulf the entire federation, and questions of Özil’s fidelity to the national cause returned. Then Özil quit, making references to Grindel’s comments from his time as a lawmaker in which he appeared to question whether multiculturalism was compatible with integration.
“My aim was not to have people separate in one country, everybody can do what they want and no one has contact; there are women living 30 years in Germany and speaking no word in German,” Grindel said. “My attitude was to bring people together.”
Katarina Barley, Germany’s justice minister, was one of few public figures to offer support to Özil.“It’s an alarm signal when a great German footballer like Mesut Özil no longer wants to be in his country because of racism and does not feel represented by the German football board,” she said.
In Munich, as Germany returned to play its first match since the World Cup against the new champion, France, two weeks, shopkeepers on Goethestrasse — a thoroughfare dominated by Turkish-run restaurants, fruit sellers and general stores that sold Turkish and German soccer jerseys side by side — bemoaned the impact Özil’s words would have on their lives. They said the comments brought negative scrutiny on the entire Turkish community. Others, like 25-year-old Ali Mahir Zeytinoglu, said Özil was only expressing what many other children of Turkish migrants felt.
“We have to respect each other, that’s the point,” he said. “But the problem is some people don’t give you respect.”
Zeytinoglu, born in Munich to Turkish parents, said he felt equally German and Turkish, a sentiment he shares with Özil, who described having two hearts, one that beats for Germany and another for Turkey.
Gebauer, the philosopher and sports expert, said, “In Germany, people have extreme difficulty to understand someone can have two passports, two nationalities and be faithful to two countries.”
While Germany remains the favorite to beat Turkey and host the 2024 Euro, bid leaders privately express concerns that even though they believe Özil’s claims of racism have no merit, such talk risks making the vote closer than many expect. Turkish politicians and bid officials have brought up the issue several times since the scandal broke.
In fact, the fallout from the Özil affair and a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that has taken root in certain parts of the country after an influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees have made hosting the championships more urgent, Bierhoff said.
“That’s the reason we have to get the European Championship in 2024, to show the world that this country is different,” Bierhoff said. “Of course, you never get everything the right way, but the majority of people in Germany are different. We have to show this.”
Against France, Gundogan trotted onto the field as a second-half substitute to a mixture of jeers and cheers, a sign of the indignation many continue to feel about that day in May.
“This must end now,” Löw said after the match, which ended in a scoreless draw. “If a national team player is jeered, that does not help anyone.” Löw insisted Gundogan supported the values of Germany. “He was born here, his family and friends are here.”
German soccer’s commitment to welcoming minorities should not be questioned, Grindel said. He said 50,000 asylum-seekers and refugees were registered with one of Germany’s 25,000 clubs. The DFB has also invited diversity officers, including the black, Brazilian-born striker known as Cacau, who played in the 2006 World Cup, to meet international media. Cacau said he had never experienced racism in his nearly two decades in Germany.
Still, there is little diversity in the upper reaches of the DFB. Senior management exhibits little of the modern Germany that bid leaders are so keen to talk about. Those changes may come, but for now the focus is on winning the Euro vote on Sept. 27. Failure isn’t an option, especially when the opponent is a bid backed by Turkey’s Erdogan.
“That would be horrible for the Germans, worse than anything,” Gebauer said. “I would say Erdogan is the most hated man in Germany.”