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Home   /   Athletes as Activists – A comparative investigation into the media portrayal of Mesut Ozil – The Political Figure

The 21st century has seen mass development in the number of athletes using their status and potential outreach to voice their opinion on political and social issues. With this new-found power the reach of social media possesses, it is, with each passing year, becoming ever more normal for athletes to use their outreach to take their individualistic stance on an issue. In this essay, I want to, using Mesut Ozil in particular, explore how the media receives these stances, the difference in reporting between foreign media and the English media, how the media use “framing” to influence public opinion on a matter, and the overall advancements that have been made in England on the way athletes as activists has been reported.

The Western world has been no stranger to political uproar and societal disputes since the turn of the century. In 2016, Colin Kapernicks decision to sit during the national anthem was widely reported, and supported, across the world. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” (Wyche 2016). In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the UK was in lockdown, Anthony Joshua took to the streets to deliver an empowering message “the virus has been declared a pandemic. This is out of control. And I’m not talking about COVID-19. The virus I’m talking about is called racism” (Sky Sports 2020). Players up and down the football league took (and still continue to), a knee before kick-off, with some going, quite literally, in the opposite direction to get their message across, like Wilfried Zaha. “I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse.” (Gastelum 2021). There is also Raheem Sterling, perhaps the athlete who has received the most documentation in the country for standing up for what he believes in, and, arguably, beginning the shift the way in which the English media report on the athletes that do so. Two years ago, Sterling publicly stated he’s more concerned about the issue of racial injustice and talking about it right now than his career as a professional footballer. (Church 2019). The prevalence of this doesn’t just lie in how large he must have felt the magnitude of the situation was at the time to come out and make a statement which, incidentally, was during one of his best years of football, statistically. The prevalence lies in the progression of media coverage, not just around Sterling, but how athletes can change the way the media “frame” them, by using their platform. “Raheem Sterling – from scapegoat to icon” was the title of a BBC article published in July 2021, quite the contrary to “The life of footie idiot Raheem Sterling”, a real headline tweeted by The Sun in June 2016. Raheem Sterling is an established signpost for how far media coverage has come when reporting on athletes as activists. The “stick to football” cliché, now feels a bit more archaic. Similarly to the aforementioned athletes, Mesut Ozil has used his (very large) platform to voice his beliefs, some of his political stances however emigrate over to the Eastern world, which receives, for obvious reasons, a little less publicity from the English media. I will be using two specific case studies, in which the German has been at the heart of. Ozil’s resignation from the German national team after the 2018 World Cup, his citing of racism as a reason for it and the importance of a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was published shortly before the World Cup. As well as tweet Ozil published in December of 2019, calling out China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims, what followed was his employers, Arsenal football club, “distancing themselves” from his comments.

On the surface, Ozil’s resignation from the German national team wouldn’t of been portrayed as a large activistic stance. However, it was the foundation of Ozil’s activism. In Ozil’s resignation, he implicitly referred to personal experiences of the struggles for ethnic groups within German society “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilitates to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being “different.” (Ozil 2018). It’s a heavy-hitting statement from a typically reserved footballer, who usually shied away from media duties during his, at points glittering Arsenal career. For a player who’s won German player of the year a record five times, it leaves a bemusing taste, one that can only be explained for reasons beyond the sport.

“Over the past two decades the concept of Leitkultur (“leading” or “guiding culture”), which articulates the expectation that immigrants should embrace and adhere to dominant German values in order to integrate into society, has largely characterized the country’s attitude toward immigration. In this view integration must be accompanied by a consistent display of certain values, specifically hard work, discipline, an adherence to democratic principles embodied in the German Constitution” (Fischer 2020). These values held in Germany, incidentally, are the opposite of the narrative of Mesut Ozil, the footballer. A study of the German media discourse after Germanys World Cup 2018 exit, shows how the media frame the German, “Director Özil joins in a weak team seamlessly. He seems indecisive, discouraged and timid, cannot breathe life into offensive play.” (Die Welt 2018). Amongst the English media, it almost became the traditional joke when talking about Ozil to relate it to the general notion of that Arsenal side (in 2018/19) ‘weak’, ‘spineless’. “It was just the usual Özil, his silky irrelevance merging seamlessly into the wider grand irrelevance of Arsenal” (Early 2019). In Ozil’s case, the media managed to do a tremendous job in framing him, purposefully or not, against the “certain values” Fischer alluded to.  “Media outlets cannot tell us explicitly what to think but can be marvellously effective at outlining what a viewer should think about” (Rojas-Torrijos 2021). Language analysis of media reports in Germany in the days following their shock exit from the World Cup, where they were beaten by South Korea, intimates that the media’s distaste for Ozil isn’t only exclusive to England. “Özil is now seen more critically than ever as one, if not the symbolic figure of German failure in Russia.” (Bergmann 2018). “Özil did not go through a brainstorm against South Korea. He could have put Germany in the knockout round. He could have become a player of the game and silenced the critics. But he didn’t take his chance.” (Die Welt 2018). The predominant theme throughout my analysis implicates Ozil being at the heartbeat of the entire teams’ shortcomings, ‘he could’ve put Germany in the knockout round’, almost suggesting Ozil had missed a penalty in stoppage time. What’s also clear in the analysis is the international comparativeness between the German media and English media, which even former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, alluded to. “Arsene Wenger has hit out at the ‘blame culture’ that has seen Mesut Ozil singled out for criticism in Arsenal’s slump.” (Al Samaarai 2017).

“It was not only in this scene that showed why Özil is often confronted with the accusation of phlegm. He hardly had to go into duels because the game passed him by anyway. His entire body language seemed indecisive, discouraged, and timid in this first half. The Germans really wanted to score a goal in order to keep up the pressure on the competition. Instead, South Korea won numerous scoring opportunities. The German offensive game, it didn’t get off the ground. And that was also due to Özil.” (Die Welt 2018). Despite the evident need for journalists to do their job, the language used is quite telling on the media’s perception of Ozil as a footballer. Whilst also alluding back to the stark contrast between language such as “indecisive, discouraged, timid” and the connotations to ‘Leitkultur’, earlier referenced by Fischer, “consistent display if certain values, specifically hard work, discipline, an adherence to democratic principles embodied in the German constitution”. (Fischer 2020). “The action was symptomatic of Mesut Özil’s play: he couldn’t go beyond good approaches.” (Die Welt 2018). This quote, incidentally, coincides with the title of the report “No more than good approaches”, published a day after South Korea eliminated the Germans, further reinforcing the point of the media framing Ozil to be the centre point and embodiment of Germany’s performance. Analysing the media’s language, and the timing of their reporting, it’s easy to see where Ozil comes from when he stated the “the newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me” (NY Times 2018), following his resignation. Exploring the racial elements behind Ozil’s statement further, Ozil suggests it’s not only the media which begrudged his Turkish background, “A German fan told me after the game, ‘Özil, fuck off you Turkish shit, piss off you Turkish pig.” (Byrant 2018).

Ozil isn’t the only example of a German international, who was not fully German, receiving differing treatment from the German media. “Racialized references to [Jerome] Boateng’s “tattoos,” “Hip Hop lifestyle,” and “hotheadedness” were frequent in public assessments of his decision-making both on- and off the field (Fischer 2020). In contrast, white players such as Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger were praised for their “intelligence,” “professionalism,” “discipline,” and “relentless fighting spirit”’ (Fischer 2020).  Boateng, similarly to Ozil, has language embedded in the media to frame him against those German values Fischer refers to, which white and ‘fully German’ players such as Lahm and Schweinsteiger, are lauded for. Despite this, it wasn’t so long ago where Ozil and Boateng embodied a phenomenon called the “new Germany”, which was portrayed by the entire World Cup winning squad in 2014. “After winning the FIFA Cup in 2014, the German men’s soccer team was widely celebrated as an emblem of a “new Germany,” inclusive, welcoming, and team oriented. Consisting of a diverse group of players sharing German, Ghanaian, Polish, Tunisian, and Turkish heritage, was lauded as symbolizing a new dawn for successfully integrating immigrants into the nation.” (Fischer 2020). “After the team placed third at the 2010 WC, then German president Christian Wulff praised them as “‘having … an image of a colourful, cosmopolitan Germany – from Boateng to Özil, from Schweinsteiger to Lahm. Our country can be thankful and proud of this team’” (Fischer 2020).

So, how and why did Ozil’s rapport in Germany deteriorate so drastically? It can be speculated that it began when a picture of Ozil and Gundogan with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was published online. The immediate response to this within Germany was that of discontent, with high-ranking political figure and the DFB President at the time, Reinhard Grindel stating that it was “not a good thing’’ for the players to pose with Erdoğan. The DFB of course respects the special situation for our players with migrant backgrounds, but football and the DFB stands for values that Mr Erdoğan does not sufficiently respect” (Oltermann 2018). Ozil and Gundogan met with Erdogan as part of a charity event, the timing may have not been perfect to pose for a photo with a controversial figure in Germany, however, it was *just* a photo. The storm which followed the photo would suggest otherwise. Before being elected as the German Football Association president in 2016, Reinhard Grindel was a member of the German Bundestag, which is the Federal Parliament in Germany, in 2004 Grindel, while working in Parliament he stated that multiculturalism was a “myth and a lie” (Pearson 2018). This particular quote is poignant in supporting certain statements in Ozil’s resignation letter, which will be referred to later. It also highlights the engrained attitudes towards multicultural integration in Germany, from such a high political figure. “Multicultural integration has failed not because of the so-called “fundamental” differences between certain cultures, as claimed by far-right nationalists, but because it has neglected to address the ways that German society retains a strong attachment to whiteness and Christianity.” (Fischer 2020). This, alongside his comments made after the photo with Erdogan was the catalyst for Ozil to centre blame on Grindel, who at the time was president of the DFB. Making direct reference to Grindel, Ozil stated after his resignation that “people with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has players from dual‑heritage families. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent. In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose. I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly. I am disappointed but not surprised by [Grindel’s] actions. But when high-ranking DFB officials disrespect my Turkish roots and selfishly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough.” (Byrant 2018). Grindel was not the only governmental figure within Germany to criticise the two for the picture, with a Government integration commissioner Anette Widdmann-Mauz, labelling the two “poor role models” (Perseke 2018). Widdmann Mauz also stated, “I don’t expect a footballer to become a diplomat overnight. But I expect an international soccer player to become aware of his role” (Perseke 2018). Again, we see the blame being put on Ozil, reinforcing his claim of newspapers “trying to turn the country against me”.

Ozil’s accusation of racism against him in his resignation letter are not just supported by a fan in the stadium giving him abuse after the game, it goes as far as German politicians posting racist remarks about him and Gundogan. “An SPD politician from Bebra in East Hesse has seriously offended the two international soccer players Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan for their meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First City Councillor Bernd Holzhauer commented on the DFB’s preliminary selection for the World Cup on his private Facebook account with the words: the preliminary German roster for the World Cup – 25 Germans and two goat fuckers.” (Perske 2018). When racism is engrained in the thought processes of City Councillors and members of German parliament, it’s hard not to draw comparisons as to how and why the media would frame Ozil (an embodiment of failed multicultural integration in Germany) to be at fault for the German national teams’ shortcomings. As well as this, there are other real-life comparisons that can be made against the photo with Erdogan. For example, former German captain Lothar Mätthaus, was photographed not long before Ozils photo with Erdogan, shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, a man not renowned for his tolerance. The outcry was noticeable by its near-total absence. (Pearson 2018). Evidence like this supports Ozil’s illustration in his resignation letter that stated, “I am still not accepted into society’ and it feels that ‘I am treated as being ‘different”. (Ozil 2018). Ozil, in some ways fell victim to the extreme nationalisation and patriotic feeling of international football, alongside the German national teams’ drastic fall from grace between the two World Cups. “The consequence of this nationalised perspective on international football is that the decision on national deservedness then is not only a sportive one but by and large also a political one.” (van Campenhout 2021). “Players with dual citizenship or footballers with migration backgrounds, seem to carry the extra burden of having to prove to unquestionably belong to the nation, to be the model-citizen, at the risk of being seen as untrustworthy or even a traitor if not.” (van Campenhout 2021). This, alongside the clear bias towards Ozil following the picture; following Germanys World Cup exit; following his resignation, makes his activistic standpoint when resigning from the national team, seem more just.

Ozil’s powerful activistic stance against the German media and high-ranking officials, did cause change. Aforementioned Reinhard Grindel, who Ozil publicly criticised, “people with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world” (Byrant 2018), ended up resigning from the DFB in July 2019. Ozil also altered the way in which he, and probably many more athletes in the future, are reported on when taking a stance against high ranking political figures.  

Just over a year on, in December of 2019, Ozil took to Twitter to voice his concern over the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, the tweet read, “East Turkistan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Quran’s, they shut down their mosques, they ban their schools, they kill their holy men, the men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men, the women are forced to marry Chinese men… But Muslims are silent” (Sarigul 2019). What followed was Arsenal “distancing” themselves from his comments, the club received huge backlash for this, while Ozil received support from the English media. In the statement following Ozil’s tweet, Arsenal affirmed “As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” (Early 2019). The media were quick to jump to the defence of Ozil over this, using other examples of politics crossing into football, without the “distancing” from related clubs. “Arsenal’s claim that they do not involve themselves in politics is not strictly true. Every year, like all the other Premier League clubs, they wear a poppy on their shirt in the matches around Armistice Day. The poppy is essentially a signal of respect towards the British armed forces and wearing one is a political stance. Every year Arsenal support the Rainbow Laces campaign against homophobia. They had not felt the need to comment on Hector Bellerin’s tweet last Thursday, urging people to vote in the UK election and adding the hashtag “#FuckBoris”.” (Early 2019). Evidently, the reality of the situation was not Arsenal not wanting to involve itself in politics, it was the club not wanting to risk losing out on the whole Chinese market. Days after Ozil’s tweet, China banned coverage of Arsenal versus Manchester City, forced the state-controlled media to write a series of politicised condemnations of Özil, shut down his fan page, and set about systematically eliminating all traces of the German from the internet. (Syed 2019).  The Chinese football market is worth in excess of £10 million per season. (Spence 2019). Arsenal would’ve been aware of the marketability losses, therefore came out with the public distancing. Of course, when an institution as large as Arsenal, effectively, chooses profit over ethics, it ensues mass media attention.   

In an article from the Guardian titled “Mesut Özil should be able to say what he likes about subjects he cares about” by Eni Aluko, she stated “many will just be happy to have another excuse to criticise him”, alluding back to the narrative of Ozil falling victim to the blame culture in both England and Germany. “They [footballers] are members of society too and should not be restricted to commenting on football. There are many issues cultural figures can have way more impact than politicians and history shows that it is worth players speaking up to support whatever cause they believe in.” (Aluko 2019). In another article published by Anthony Andrew of The Observer titled “Mesut Özil, the playmaker who spoke out when football stayed silent”, he highlights the backwardness of how behaviour such as Ozils was received by the sporting world. “Celebrated former Barcelona and Man City player and fellow Muslim Yaya Touré, who has long campaigned against racism in football, advised Özil that he was “wrong” and should stick to football. Özil had spoken out on what is unquestionably the largest, most systematic and flagrant case of religious persecution in the world, and the reaction of his sport was to push him away, as though he were a reckless troublemaker.” (Andrew 2019). Despite the issue Ozil raised not being, *in context*, all that relative in England, or the Western world, the common theme was the English media being together with Ozil and his views. “When a Turkish-German Muslim playing football in the UK expresses concern about the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Xinjiang, he deserves our solidarity.” (Patterson 2019). The difference in language between the coverage of Ozil following Germanys World Cup exit and resignation, to this, is stark.

Ozil’s activistic stances didn’t just tackle modern day failures, such as unsuccessful multicultural integration in Germany, or the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, which has been supported by the US and leading human rights groups. Ozil has challenged engrained societal issues in an attempt to break historical patterns, on a worldwide scale. “The treatment of the Uighurs should be seen not as a one-off scandal, but as part of a broader, more historic pattern.” (Syed 2019). “Germany is in the midst of an identity crisis as right-wing populism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are sweeping across Europe, accompanied by growing wealth inequalities. The negative reactions to Özil in the post 2018 WC era, discussed further below, reveal the superficial nature of discourses of German multicultural integration as well as the extent to which the inclusion of certain “good” immigrants is fleeting. (Fischer 2020). In doing this, Ozil managed to switch his own narrative in the English media, from “the usual Özil, his silky irrelevance” (Early 2019), to “the playmaker who spoke out when football stayed silent” (Andrew 2019).

By standing for issues greater than the sport, Ozil has made himself an activist for activism in itself, the analysis presented has shown the development within English media from the “stick to football” narrative, to the support athletes now receive from mainstream media when making non-sporting displays of excellence.

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