In the face of criticism, will Mesut Ozil continue to play for Germany?
MOSCOW -- By any objective measure, Mesut Ozil had a reasonable game for Germany against South Korea. His running stats show he roughly covered as much ground, at the same average pace, as his teammates. The midfielder touched the ball 110 times, had a passing success rate of 86 per cent and played seven key passes that lead to shots at goal, more than anyone else had mustered in a single game at the World Cup until then.
One could argue Ozil's extraordinary ability and important position on the pitch require much more than an acceptable performance -- "with great power comes great responsibility," as the line from "Spider-Man" goes -- but that can't explain why the 29-year-old has been singled out for especially large doses of vitriol by sections of the German media.
TV channel Pro7 demanded the player's resignation from the national team in a tweet. (They later apologised and deleted the post.) Die Welt, Bild and FAZ all illustrated articles about Germany's inglorious exit with photos of the playmaker. Sport1 gave him the worst possible mark (6), and Sat1 commentator Claus Strunz bemoaned that Ozil had "only played backwards" in Kazan. "The scapegoat has been found," Frankfurter Rundschau wrote about the wholly disproportional criticism.
Ozil's effortless, floating style and slouching shoulders have long been a red rag for all those who prefer their footballers as testosterone-fuelled warriors. This goes much deeper, however. On June 19, Lothar Matthaus' insistence in Bild that "Ozil doesn't look happy in the Germany shirt" after the Mexico defeat was juxtaposed on the tabloid's cover with President Trump's claim that "the people of Germany are turning against their leadership" due to crime perpetuated by immigrants.
What followed was a torrent of xenophobic abuse aimed at Ozil, the son of Turkish immigrants. He has been subjected to vile abuse by right-wing party AFD, while a representative of the player told ESPN that more than 200 abusive emails have chimed with those discriminatory sentiments.
For Ozil, the bigotry is a painful throwback to his childhood days in Gelsenkirchen, when a series of local clubs refused to let him join. His face -- and first name -- didn't fit in. By the time he emerged as the symbol of the new football and the more diverse make-up of the Germany team in 2010, public sentiment had mercifully changed. Those trying to denigrate the children of immigrants as undeserving of a place in the national team found no echo for their repulsive views.
The German government wanted to present Ozil as a poster boy for integration, but the player never felt comfortable as a role model. In 2010, Turkish fans booed him during an international against Germany that was played in Berlin.
The complex subject of Ozil's national identity made the headlines again when he and Germany teammate Ilkay Gundogan met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London three weeks before the World Cup. Ozil's relationship with the autocratic leader goes back a decade, to a time when he was Erdogan was prime minister and considered widely pro-Western.
Both players have been criticised for taking part in the publicity stunt, unwittingly or otherwise, while German chancellor Angela Merkel said the pair "belong to this national team." Gundogan released a statement on Facebook, pledging allegiance to "German values" but was nevertheless booed mercilessly in the pre-World Cup friendly vs. Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen. He broke down in tears in the changing room and played with marked inhibition as a substitute vs. Sweden in Russia.
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Ozil, by contrast, preferred to keep his counsel. Germany manager Joachim Low wanted him to release a similar statement to Gundogan, but he refused. An offer from Bild to explain himself in an interview was also turned down, a member of the German FA delegation told ESPN. According to a source close to the player, Ozil reacted badly to the pressure put on him and withdrew further into his shell.
His performances in Russia were seemingly unaffected by the affair, but his unwillingness to engage in a tricky balancing act that recognised the problematic nature of the meeting without amounting to an apology, which he felt was wholly unwarranted, made it much harder for the German FA and the team to deal with the fallout.
Ozil's silence encouraged right-wingers to portray him as the treacherous "other" who was not fully committed to Germany, and they readily blamed him and Gundogan for the holders' failure to defend the trophy. The date with Erdogan was a convenient hook on which critics could hang their bigotry.
A source told ESPN that Ozil is yet to make up his mind whether he wants to continue to represent Germany in such a toxic environment. But irrespectively, the FA and the team should declare that any disappointment with Ozil's implied politics, let alone his performances, can never excuse xenophobic attacks.
If German football was to lose the most gifted technician of his generation, as well as Gundogan, due to the increased influence of reactionary forces, the long-term damage could well outweigh the embarrassment of an early World Cup departure. A whole raft of players of a similar background will think long and hard whether playing for the national team is worth that kind of vilification.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein