JOHANNESBURG – Football has come a long way from fans throwing bananas on to the pitch at John Barnes in Liverpool in 1988. Or has it?
Mesut Ozil has added fresh fuel to the fire that is racism in the beautiful game by showing discrimination in the sport has evolved from a black and white issue to one of heritage and roots.
Ozil, 29, quit the German national team this week, citing racism and disrespect. This follows a political storm that blighted his and Germany’s 2018 Fifa World Cup campaign.
Weeks before the tournament, Ozil, Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan and Cenk Tosun of Everton posed for a picture with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The photo, taken in London in May, and Ozil created an uproar as Germany disappointed in defending the title they won in Brazil four years ago.
The Germans were knocked out at the group stages in Russia and Ozil became the scapegoat, hit with hate mail and death threats. Not only that, but a number of high profile Germans, including DFB president Reinhard Grindel, publicly criticised the midfielder for his performances in Russia.
Ozil maintained his silence throughout.
That is until Sunday, when he released a statement about the incident as well as the treatment from fans, the media and most importantly, the German football federation. The key thrust of Ozil’s statement directed to the DFB and dissenting German football fans was: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
It echoes the words of Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku who, in a stirring column for the Players Tribune during the World Cup wrote: “When things were going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
Lukaku finished top scorer for the Belgians with four goals in six games. He is Belgium’s leading scorer and yet is reduced to his roots, and his African heritage is brought to the fore when things aren’t going well.
Similarly Ozil, previously heralded as the epitome of integration in Germany, has been lambasted for his Turkish roots in the wake of the Germans’ failings in Russia.
Despite being born and raised in Gelsenkirchen, being recognised as one of the most gifted midfielders in world football, playing a key role in Germany’s run to the 2014 World Cup title, providing more assists for the German national team than anyone else since his debut in 2009 and being voted German footballer of the year five times, Ozil is still a German-Turk when things aren’t going well.
His comments were understandably rejected by the DFB while many dismissed him as a crybaby.
But the La Liga and three-time FA Cup winner has received overwhelming support from the global football community with many tweeting #IstandwithOzil to show their opposition to racism in the sport.
Another incident of racism at the 2018 Fifa World Cup came as a result of that stunning Toni Kroos free-kick. Sweden’s Jimmy Durmaz, of Turkish descent, was reminded of his roots as he fell victim to racial slurs on social media after conceding the foul that led to the goal.
Football is a high-profile example of immigration and globalisation. No more so than the victorious French team. Many, including Trevor Noah, labelled their World Cup win a victory for Africa.
That didn’t go down well with certain French politicians, while even Thuli Madonsela weighed in, but the numbers speak for themselves: 87% of the victorious Les Bleus French squad was made up of players with migrant backgrounds, with 17 of the 23-man-squad born to first-generation migrants.
Some of the replies to Noah on social media were pertinent, saying the politicians insisted this group of heroes were French and French only, yet on the streets of Paris, Marseille and elsewhere around the country people with similar heritage were still called immigrants.
Pele claimed an African team would win the World Cup in the 21st century and France have proven his point in a way.
Paul Pogba is of Guinean descent. Kylian Mbappe has a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, while N’Golo Kante’s folks are Malian. Samuel Umtiti was born in Cameroon and is one of only two players in the team not born in France, the other is Steve Mandanda, born in the DRC. The list goes on with 14 of the 23-man World Cup winning squad being of African heritage, while a further six including Olivier Giroud (Italy) and Lucas Hernandez (Spain) have roots elsewhere.
The French squad is a shining example of multiculturalism and diversity, as recognised by Barack Obama during his speech at the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations in Joburg when he said “not all of those folks look like Gauls to me”.
To ignore the pan-African heritage prevalent in the squad is to ignore the benefits this brings, like the physical superiority and genetic advantages of the African athlete. As an example, look at the 2016 Olympic start list for the men’s 100m sprint final. All eight men were either African American, Caribbean, African or had African or Caribbean roots.
That’s not meant to downplay the contributions of “entirely” French stars like Benjamin Pavard, but the athleticism of Mbappe, the strength of Kante, the skill of Pogba is down to their hard work, yes, but also talent and genetics.
England were represented by their most diverse side yet, with nearly half of the team children of migrants, including Dele Alli and Kyle Walker.
Belgium boasted 10 players with migrant parents. Beaten finalists Croatia had 15% of their squad born outside of the country while 61% of the Moroccan squad was born outside of Morocco.
In a world where leading figures like Donald Trump are preaching their opposition to immigration and other occurrences like Brexit are attempting to curtail modern struggles by limiting the “other” in society, football has shown the benefits of immigration. Why then are the players still being abused because of it?
The 2018 World Cup will be remembered for VAR (video assistant referee), Diego Maradona’s antics and the Neymar roll. But it will also be remembered as the strongest showing yet of how immigrants have enhanced world football. It is a pity that men like Ozil and Lukaku are still being discriminated against - by the same people they represent on the world stage - because of their heritage.