German football struggles to rise

By Tariq Panja

For Reinhard Grindel, the leader of Germany’s football federation, this has become an awkward moment to promote his country’s campaign to stage European Championship in 2024, or, really, anything having to do with a national team that only months ago was considered a symbol of unity for the country and one of the most unstoppable forces in sports. This month, a mob waving German flags and flashing Nazi salutes rampaged through the streets of Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, chasing dark-skinned bystanders as police, for a time outnumbered, could only watch. After the images were broadcast around the world, they became yet another event for Grindel and the German federation to explain away. For weeks, the federation, the DFB, has attempted to answer accusations of racism and discrimination stemming from the ugly departure this summer of Mesut Özil from the national team after a historically awful performance from the defending world champions in the World Cup.

“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil wrote in a lengthy screed a week after the end of the World Cup, in which Germany finished last in their group, the national team’s worst showing since 1938.

Now the allegation of bigotry and discrimination from a football icon with roots in Germany’s sizable Turkish community has become a central focus in Germany’s campaign to stage the 2024 Euro. The only opponent – Turkey. Grindel said Özil’s statement represented a low point for him, even lower than the moment South Korea eliminated Germany from the World Cup. Özil had taken aim at Grindel personally, perhaps even more so than the federation he leads. Özil’s comments represent a fundamental challenge to an image the federation has been keen to cultivate since it successfully played host to the 2006 World Cup. Beginning with that event, the DFB has showcased football as a force for racial and religious integration.

Twelve years on, if a figure like Özil, heralded as a symbol of integration, could feel compelled to walk out on such terms, what does it say about modern Germany? The crisis started in May, before the World Cup, with an ill-advised photo op in London. Özil and Ilkay Gundogan posed for a photograph with Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a day before the provisional German squad was due to be announced.

The players faced a severe and immediate backlash. Members of the German media questioned their loyalty to their birth country, while members of the public took to social media to post abusive messages and threats. Joachim Löw, Germany’s national team coach; Oliver Bierhoff, its general manager; and Grindel met to figure out how to manage the crisis. They decided to keep the two players on the squad, with reports saying Grindel had initially wanted Özil barred from the team.

Banking on a deep run in Russia, senior federation officials assumed the country would quickly forget those errors. Then came losses to Mexico and South Korea, in which Özil was far from the worst performer on the German roster. But he received plenty of criticism, anyway, for creating a rift within the team, and there were accusations that he didn’t play like a German.

Grindel and German officials have recognised they should have acted more decisively when the controversy first stirred. Instead, they allowed it to engulf the entire federation, and questions of Özil’s fidelity to the national cause returned to the fore.

While Germany remains the favourite to beat Turkey and host the 2024 Euro, bid leaders privately express concerns that even though they believe Özil’s claims of racism have no merit, such talk risks making the vote closer than many expect. Turkish politicians and bid officials have brought up the issue several times since the scandal broke.

German football’s commitment to welcoming minorities should not be questioned, Grindel said. He said 50,000 asylum-seekers and refugees were registered with one of Germany’s 25,000 clubs. Still, there is little diversity in the upper reaches of the DFB. Senior management exhibits little of the modern Germany that bid leaders are so keen to talk about. Those changes may come, but for now the focus is on winning the Euro vote on September 27. Failure isn’t an option, especially when the opponent is a bid backed by Turkey’s Erdogan.

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