John McManus

The Mesut Özil affair is an own goal for Erdogan’s critics

The morning after Mesut Özil’s shock resignation from the German national football team, his family’s ancestral home set to work. Enlisting the help of the local fire brigade, locals in Devrek, a small village near Turkey’s Black Sea coast, removed the large board at its entrance of the star midfielder in his Germany kit. The picture chosen as its replacement was a giant version of the image that first caused the furore – a photograph of Özil shaking hands with president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The response of this small village was far from unique in Turkey. Özil’s resignation has played out very differently here to how it has in Germany. The footballer’s experience has been seized upon by supporters of the Turkish president, a divisive populist who draws strength from Western criticism. It offers a salient example of how attempts to stand up to autocrats can backfire.

Özil’s announcement at the end of July that ‘racism and disrespect’ had forced him to step down from the national team stemmed from an incident two months earlier, when the Arsenal midfielder and two other German-Turkish footballers met with Erdoğan when he visited London. Özil was bombarded with criticism after the meeting: he was dropped from public events, booed by his own fans and held personally responsible by some commentators for Germany’s early World Cup exit.

The decision to meet with the Turkish president in the middle of an election campaign was undoubtedly naive. So too was Özil’s justification that the audience with Erdogan – who regularly describes opposition parties as traitors – had “no political intentions”. But the deluge of opprobrium he faced afterwards missed the mark. Özil rightly claimed that the criticism – which included being called a “goat fucker” by the “social democrat” politician Bernd Holzhauer – had tipped over into racism.

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