Ozil caused controversy by posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The criticism reached boiling point ahead of Russia 2018 and Ozil was jeered by German fans
On Sunday, one of Germany‘s finest ever midfielders retired from international football. It is safe to assume that there will be no farewell party, no testimonial, no teary-eyed lap of honour.
Mesut Ozil’s retirement from international football was about as explosive as they come. On Sunday evening, the Arsenal player launched a stinging attack on the German FA (DFB), accusing them at best of failing to protect him, and at worst of institutional racism.
Ozil, a German born to Turkish parents, has been the subject of an ever more toxic public debate ever since his controversial decision to be photographed with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the spring.
Mesut Ozil announced his international retirement with an explosive letter on Sunday
It was also a tragic end to what has been a glistening international career for Ozil, who has been the talismanic figure of a golden generation of German players, the creative genius at the heart of Germany’s World Cup-winning team.
Yet it has also been a turbulent international career for Ozil, who in nine years of playing for Germany, has often struggled to win the hearts of German fans.
Though Ozil reserved his fiercest criticism for DFB president Reinhard Grindel, his retirement felt like a reckoning with Germany as a whole. It was no coincidence that, after weeks of silence, he chose to write his statement in English.
Ozil was the talismanic figure in Germany’s golden generation and starred for the Under 21s
The midfielder made his mark at the 2010 World Cup with a wonderful strike against Ghana
Bild accused Ozil of double standards, saying that the ‘whinging’ midfielder was happy to be German when the team were doing well, only to play up his Turkish roots when things went wrong.
Ozil would argue that it is not he who makes such a distinction, but the media and the public. He is, for many, a German when he plays well, but Turkish when he plays badly.
So it has been ever since Ozil burst onto the scene as part of the Under-21 side who became European Champions in 2009. Ozil scored in the 4-0 victory over England at that tournament, and he and many of his team-mates on that day would go on to become World Champions.
Ozil had made his senior debut for Germany earlier that year, laying to rest speculation that he, like many German-Turkish players, would choose to play for Turkey over Germany at senior level.
Ozil, of Turkish descent, was held as a symbol of integration and was photographed shaking hands with German leader Angela Merkel after a 3-0 victory over Turkey in Berlin in 2010
‘For me there was never any doubt that I would choose Germany,’ said Ozil ahead of his international debut against Norway.
As he established himself as a regular under Joachim Low in the following years, Ozil also became a symbol for the success of the DFB’s work on integration issues.
In 2010, after scoring against Turkey in a 3-0 victory in Berlin, Ozil was famously photographed, topless, shaking hands with Angela Merkel in the German dressing room.
‘It was a picture with symbolic value,’ wrote the Welt at the time. That a Muslim, German-Turkish player would shake hands with the Chancellor in a state of undress, after having scored against Turkey of all countries, was held up as evidence of how far football, and German society, had come.
Later that year, he would become the first person to be awarded with the prestigious Bambi Award for Integration.
The debate over Ozil exploded at the 2014 World Cup but he would go on to lift the trophy
Germany coach Joachim Low has always been a staunch defender of Ozil during his career
Yet at that point, things were going well anyway. Earlier in 2010, Ozil had enjoyed a breakthrough World Cup in South Africa, bursting onto the world stage and ultimately earning a move to Real Madrid.
After a magical performance in Germany’s 4-0 thrashing of Argentina, Focus magazine described Ozil as ‘the German Messi’. Not only did he have Messi’s creative finesse, they argued, but he was also softly spoken and media-shy, just like the Argentine superstar.
By Euro 2012, Ozil had indeed established himself as Germany’s creative star. Nonetheless, a now familiar debate was growing over his style. After semi-final defeats in 2010 and 2012, many accused the German side of lacking a winning mentality, and Ozil was increasingly singled out as an example.
As they would do later in England, his detractors back home pointed to his apparent lack of work ethic and negative body language. His supporters argued that this was superficial, and pointed to the statistics.
Ozil would win Germany’s Player of the Year award five times across the past seven seasons
The 29-year-old was repeatedly singled out for criticism by the newspapers in Germany
That divide in opinion would crystallise further in the coming years. In 2013, Ozil enjoyed what was probably his finest year in a Germany shirt, lighting up the World Cup qualifying campaign with several marvellous displays.
Yet just a year later, the old criticisms had resurfaced. In a friendly against Chile in 2014, he began the evening by receiving the award for Germany Player of the Year the previous year, and ended it being booed by Germany fans for his apparent lack of commitment.
At the World Cup in 2014, the debate over Ozil exploded. After underwhelming performances in the group stage, many called for him to be dropped.
‘He has been an enormous disappointment at this tournament,’ lamented Bild after Germany scraped past Algeria. Ozil scored a decisive goal in that game, and the relief was visible in his celebration. Yet the criticism continued, with many calling for him to be dropped ahead of the semi-final with Brazil.
Yet Low would have to defend him again in the coming years. At Euro 2016, the old dividing lines re-emerged, with one half of the country lambasting Ozil for his apparent lack of commitment, and the other half defending him with cold, hard statistics.
When he missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout against Italy, a Bavarian politician tweeted ‘never let Ozil take a penalty again’. Once again, it felt like the midfielder had been singled out unfairly.
By 2018, the criticism was worse. After Germany’s exit, right-wing politicians accused him of purposefully sabotaging the World Cup campaign on President Erdogan’s orders.
The fact that Ozil, once again, had statistically been one of Germany’s most effective players, was forgotten. The Erdogan affair had, from the very start, meant that he could never win.
The midfielder felt he was used as political propaganda by his country’s football association
It represents a tragic end to a glistening international career for Ozil, who earned 92 caps
Many German fans felt that he should have been immediately dropped from the squad, and the fact that he gave no public statement on the matter until last Sunday only deepened the resentment. Where once Ozil’s quietness had earned him comparisons with Messi, now it earned him universal condemnation.
That condemnation was not entirely unfair. From the initial photographs to the long weeks of silence, Ozil has been far from blameless in this affair.
Yet so have the DFB, and it is hard not to sympathise with his anger at the German FA. Many feel that they have cynically used the Ozil debate as a smokescreen to avoid a full and frank appraisal of their own mistakes this summer.
No matter which way you look at it, no party comes out of this well. Not Ozil, not the DFB, not the media and fans.
The retirement is a fittingly miserable end to a miserable summer for German football. When a player like Ozil retires, it should be an opportunity to look back at a glorious career. Instead, there is only bitterness.