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Ian Walker: Everything comes to an end

Mesut Ozil sports the new adidas German away kit before the World Cup. Credit: Mesut Ozil Instagram - Credit: Archant

The ‘Özil Affair’ has melded together the two topics that have dominated Germany’s lousy summer- football and immigration. IAN WALKER reports, from Munich, on where it could lead the country.

It has been a summer to forget for Germany: the end of the country’s footballing invincibility, and of principles over politics. And Mezut Özil has placed himself at the centre of it.

When he resigned from the national football team he did so by lashing out. Feeling as though he had been singled out for blame for Germany’s poor World Cup performance his announcement began by his criticising the media and finished by his attacking the DFB (German football’s governing body) and its president Reinhard Grindel, who he accused of racism.

This was a ruthless and perfectly timed attack. It dominated social media and was front-page news in the German press. Perhaps if Özil has been this ruthless in his football over the last year Arsène Wenger might still have a job and Germany might still be world champions.

But Germany are no longer world champions, and the national team’s humiliating exit from the World Cup has been one of two stories that have dominated German news over the last two months. The other, which has run in tandem with the World Cup debacle, has been about immigration – and that story nearly brought down the German government.

The row about immigration began with the minister of the interior Horst Seehofer attempting to introduce stricter controls on asylum seekers entering Germany. His reasons for doing this were related to his political base, in Bavaria. Seehofer is a senior politician in the CSU, the right-wing Bavarian party. At the national level, the CSU always form a coalition with Germany’s main conservative party the CDU, led by Angela Merkel. They are not the same party, but they are effectively a unified block in German politics.

Or at least they were until this summer. In the autumn of this year, there are to be Bavarian regional elections, and the CSU is feeling threatened by the populist anti-immigration AfD party. Seehofer’s CSU has been positioning themselves further to the right on various issues to see off this AfD challenge.

And this meant Seehofer challenging Merkel. His stricter immigration controls were a direct challenge to Merkel’s position on the issue. At one point it looked like Merkel was going to have to sack Seehofer, which could have led to the collapse of the government.

This political drama was watched by a baffled German public. How could Germany – this country that placed practicality over ideology and placed principles over politics – find itself in this situation? How could Germany be facing this Brexit-like chaos of inept governance; this Trumpian triumph of stupidity over stability?

Throughout June, this Seehofer-Merkel drama was played out on news programmes broadcast during the half-time intervals of the World Cup matches shown on German television. Each night, a couple of minutes of Oliver Kahn’s punditry was followed by the latest from the Bundestag. Sitting on your sofa you could watch the CDU/CSU lurching from crisis to crisis, alongside the German team lurching from crisis to crisis.

There had been concerns about Germany’s World Cup campaign before the tournament started. Desultory friendly results, including a defeat by Austria, raised eyebrows. But what was more worrying than the poor results was that German fans in the game against Austria began to boo Mezut Özil and Ilkay Gundogan, two German players of Turkish descent.

The booing was triggered by Özil’s and Gundogan’s decision to have their photos taken with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a photo-op in London in May. What isn’t clear is how much this booing was anti-Turkish and anti-immigrant racism and how much it was anti-Erdogan political sentiment.

Germany’s relationship with Turkey broke down in 2017 over Erdogan’s bid to campaign among Germany’s Turkish population (who can vote in Turkey) to win support for his constitutional reform referendum. The German government refused and Erdogan accused them of being fascists and, like the good populist he is, he dialled up the outraged rhetoric at every opportunity. Turkish immigration into Germany has never been a smooth affair and now Erdogan was exploiting this for his own ends.

Erdogan narrowly won the referendum and did so with overwhelming support from Germany’s Turkish population. This played into the hands of the anti-immigration AfD who argued that Germany’s Turkish migrant population were loyal to Erdogan – a populist despot and a Muslim – and not Germany. Suddenly Germany’s liberal tolerance found itself under siege from both Turkish populist thugs and German populist racists.

And this is why it is hard to judge why Özil was booed in that Austria match? Was it by people who hated the Turks, or was it by people who hated Erdogan? Whichever it was it would have been better for all concerned if Özil and Gundogan hadn’t had their photos taken with the Turkish leader.

Ozil’s justified the photograph by saying: ‘I grew up in Germany, but my family roots are in Turkey, I have two hearts, a German and a Turkish one. For me it did not matter who the president was, but that it was the president.’ This is a reasonable position considering the Turkish experience in Germany over the last half-century; however, it was perhaps naive of him and his advisors not to think that there would be fall-out.

But despite the fall-out, the suggestions it was the Özil affair that destabilised Germany’s build-up is unfair. The team’s poor performance can be blamed on all sorts of things, from Thomas Müller’s lost form, the old and slow defence, bad selections and missing the captaincy of Philipp Lahm. Özil had a poor competition but he wasn’t alone – so it is not surprising he would want to defend himself and point out the hypocrisy of the German media and the DFB.

Özil’s rage was mainly aimed at the DFB and at Grindel. In his outburst, Özil accused him of singling him out for Germany’s early exit from the World Cup. He suggested that this was racially motivated. He also accused Grindel of supporting racist immigration policies when Grindel was a CDU politician in the Bundestag. He claimed that as far as the DFB was concerned ‘I am German if we win, but an immigrant if we lose’.

And the response to Özil’s outburst has been just as electrifying. Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern Munich, tore into the row, accusing Özil of ‘last winning a tackle in 2014’, of ‘playing s**t for years’ and saying that ‘Whenever (Bayern) played against Arsenal, we play through him because we knew that was their weak point’. As bust-ups go this one would make Roy Keane proud.

But there is more to this story than just bruised egos and bad losers. With his spectacular outburst, Özil has welded together the two stories – immigration and football – that have dominated the German news over the last two months. The question now is whether the Özil affair is just a footnote to this lousy Germany summer, or whether it will become another incident in the slow unravelling of all that was genuinely strong and stable in German politics.

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