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Mesut Ozil’s Ghost Still Haunts Germany

Proposed citizenship reform offers a chance at redemption.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27.
Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27.
Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27. INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to be upset with Germany’s performance so far at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The team opened with an embarrassing defeat to Japan last week and eked out a draw against Spain on Sunday. Whether they can advance to the round of 16 will be determined on Thursday in a match against Costa Rica. If the Mannschaft fails to defeat Los Ticos, this World Cup would be their worst in history: While the German team exited the tournament after the group stage in 2018, they did so having won at least one match.

The German squad has also been criticized for their strange denunciation of Qatar’s human rights record. Ahead of the Nov. 23 matchup against Japan, team members posed muzzled in protest of a last-minute FIFA rule stipulating that captains wearing an armband in support of LGBTQ+ rights—as German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had planned to do—would be penalized with a yellow card. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser instead donned the band in the stands while seated next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who has emerged as one of Qatar’s most fervent apologists.

“Human rights are nonnegotiable. That should be self-evident. But sadly it still isn’t,” the German soccer federation, or DFB, wrote in an accompanying statement. Sex between men can technically be punished with the death penalty in Qatar, though there is no record of anyone ever facing the punishment for this reason, according to the Washington Post. There are reports of gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Gulf country being harassed and beaten.

There are plenty of reasons to be upset with Germany’s performance so far at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The team opened with an embarrassing defeat to Japan last week and eked out a draw against Spain on Sunday. Whether they can advance to the round of 16 will be determined on Thursday in a match against Costa Rica. If the Mannschaft fails to defeat Los Ticos, this World Cup would be their worst in history: While the German team exited the tournament after the group stage in 2018, they did so having won at least one match.

The German squad has also been criticized for their strange denunciation of Qatar’s human rights record. Ahead of the Nov. 23 matchup against Japan, team members posed muzzled in protest of a last-minute FIFA rule stipulating that captains wearing an armband in support of LGBTQ+ rights—as German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had planned to do—would be penalized with a yellow card. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser instead donned the band in the stands while seated next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who has emerged as one of Qatar’s most fervent apologists.

“Human rights are nonnegotiable. That should be self-evident. But sadly it still isn’t,” the German soccer federation, or DFB, wrote in an accompanying statement. Sex between men can technically be punished with the death penalty in Qatar, though there is no record of anyone ever facing the punishment for this reason, according to the Washington Post. There are reports of gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Gulf country being harassed and beaten.

The Mannschaft’s photo-op has been lambasted by Qatar boycotters and defenders alike. One German commentator wrote that the stunt was insufficient and embarrassing—“A signal to FIFA: You’re right, we’ll let you shut us up?”—and contrasted the squad’s meek silence with the much riskier protests by members of Iran’s national team. The timing was also awkward, coming just as Faeser’s rainbow-clad government finalized a liquefied natural gas deal with Qatar.

Others questioned whether Germany’s move fed its disastrous performance by distracting players from the game at hand. And an emerging cohort has accused the country’s anti-discrimination stance of being hypocritical, invoking the travails of former player Mesut Ozil, who resigned from the German national team in 2018 after being blamed for its disastrous showing in that year’s World Cup. Ozil considered the criticism to be racially motivated and said he no longer wanted to represent a country that disrespected him; today, he plays for Turkish club team Istanbul Basaksehir but lacks any national affiliation.

During Germany’s Nov. 27 match against Spain, a group of attendees held up photos of Ozil while covering their mouths with their hands. It’s unclear whether they did so independently or whether it was a broader action organized by Qatari officials—or perhaps both. One Bangladeshi worker told Germany’s Bild tabloid that posters depicting Ozil lay in his seat when he arrived at the stadium and that Qataris instructed him to hold them. “I don’t know what the posters meant,” he said. Still, the display has earned genuine support from many observers, particularly in the Islamic world.


Germany’s historic failures at the 2018 World Cup became a lasting trauma for many because of how they spiraled once the team arrived home. A bitter blame game among fans, pundits, and DFB leadership ensued, hastily zeroing in on Ozil’s performance as the source of the Mannschaft’s woes. Never mind that he was a reigning world champion who created a record seven chances during Germany’s ouster against South Korea—all unanswered by his teammates—and that soccer is, by definition, a team sport. Ozil “was arguably Germany’s best player in their doomed lineup,” John Dillon, an editor at Bavarian Football Works, wrote at the time. But “[e]ven an outstanding performance never completely convinces his dedicated critics.”

Those critics had been angry even before the tournament. In May 2018, Ozil, who is Turkish German and a practicing Muslim, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London—just one month before Erdogan was vying for reelection. Fellow Turkish German player Ilkay Gundogan was also in attendance. The pair gifted Erdogan jerseys from their U.K. club teams and posed for photos that caused an uproar in Germany.

The DFB roundly condemned the gathering, saying that “the DFB stands for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect.” Two months later, after the World Cup, the federation returned to this refrain. DFB team director Oliver Bierhoff said Germany “should have considered passing on Ozil” after the Erdogan photo, implying that it somehow lessened Ozil’s fealty to Germany and thus damned the national team.

I was working in Berlin at the time and distinctly recall how anger at Ozil consumed the German public. It seemed almost taboo to defend him because that could be interpreted as an endorsement of Erdogan and his autocratic policies. The national discussion was completely lacking nuance, and Ozil was—understandably—fed up.

In late July 2018, Ozil announced his resignation from the Mannschaft on social media, writing that “people have used my picture with President Erdogan as an opportunity to express their previously hidden racist tendencies.” He questioned why his Polish German teammates Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski were never asked to speak for Warsaw and pointed out that former Germany captain Lothar Matthäus, who is white, did not face much criticism after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the tournament, which Russia hosted.

Prior to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, German leaders generally had amicable—if sometimes tense—ties to Moscow. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder enjoyed famously chummy relationships with both Putin and Erdogan but did not face widespread backlash until this year; even so, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has declined to kick him out of its ranks.

In all this, Ozil saw a double standard and famously concluded that “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” Since then, Ozil—who is also vocal in his support for Palestinians and Uyghurs—has become somewhat of a heroic resistance figure in much of the Islamic world.

Parallels between Qatar’s homophobic laws and Ozil’s treatment in Germany are obviously overblown. One country is a monarchy that makes gay sex punishable by death; the other is a representative democracy that chastised a player for failing to toe its political line. And while some Western criticism of Qatar is rooted more in Islamophobic racism than principle, it remains a stretch to compare Qatar’s human rights record to Germany’s.

What Sunday’s Qatari counterprotest did presciently highlight, however—most likely unintentionally—is the exclusionary nature of German citizenship policy at a moment when it appears poised for groundbreaking reform.

Ozil’s experience of racism in Germany is inextricably tied to the country’s archaic nationality laws. As Germany’s largest ethnic minority group, Turkish Germans like him have been on the front lines of the country’s often painful identity wars. Turkey and West Germany signed a migrant labor agreement in 1961—Ozil’s grandfather among the beneficiaries—and today, Germany is home to around 3 to 4 million people of Turkish origin.

But even as Turkish settlement in Germany became permanent, politicians neglected to acknowledge the country’s emerging multiculturalism, and Turkish Germans were denied a reliable pathway to citizenship. That they were overwhelmingly Muslim didn’t help: Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reportedly told his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, that he didn’t have a problem with European immigrants but that “Turks come from a very different culture.” He went so far as to offer them financial incentives to return to Turkey.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Germany opened a pathway to citizenship for non-ethnic Germans who had lived in the country for at least 15 years. (This requirement was reduced to eight years for those between the ages of 16 and 23.) And only at the turn of the millennium, under Schröder, did the SPD and Greens push for Germany to lower this threshold to eight years for all and introduce jus soli, or birthright, citizenship to complement its existing jus sanguinis, or ethnicity-based, model. It was a far cry from the automatic passport enjoyed by those born in most countries in the Americas: To qualify, a child must have one parent who has lived legally in Germany for at least eight years. But it was still a landmark achievement.

“Until the end of the 1990s, you were either a German or a foreigner. There was nothing in between,” Ferda Ataman, who is now the German government’s federal anti-discrimination commissioner, wrote in 2018.

The SPD had to make one concession to get the new nationality law past conservatives in the CDU and Free Democratic Party (FDP), who contended that allowing naturalized or jus soli Germans to maintain their previous citizenship was an “act of provocation” that could create “division.” Their opposition was often explicitly racist—one CDU politician lamented “ghetto-formation” and suggested the SPD and Greens would grant German citizenship to Kurdish militants.

The CDU launched a petition opposing dual citizenship that garnered 5 million signatures and subsequently strong-armed the SPD-Green government into including a provision that children who became German citizens on the jus soli track and had a second nationality would have to choose one citizenship upon becoming legal adults. The measure did not apply to the mostly white cohort of jus sanguinis Germans who happen to be dual citizens of other countries, such as myself.

While the blanket ban on dual citizenship in theory applied to all non-ethnic Germans, it was geared in practice toward Turkish Germans and other Muslim immigrants. This is partially because it granted an exception to dual nationals of other European Union states and Switzerland. In op-eds and campaign materials, CDU politicians defended their opposition to dual nationality by invoking Turks and their alleged failure to integrate into German society.


It’s important to dwell on these legal minutiae for two reasons. The first is that they inform the arc of Ozil’s story. The soccer phenom was born a third-generation Turkish German in 1988 and only became a German citizen at the age of 17; he had to give up his Turkish passport shortly thereafter and was reportedly excoriated as a “traitor” by Turkish officials when he did. While Ozil was determined to play for Germany at the time, the forced decision has clearly left a scar.

It also arguably proved counterintuitive insofar as the much-heralded German imperative of integration is concerned: Once considered a poster child of successful integration, Ozil quickly learned that this stature could only be maintained by disavowing his Turkishness. In his 2018 resignation, Ozil singled out then-DFB President Reinhard Grindel, a former CDU member of parliament, for having “voted against legislation for dual nationalities” while in office. Today, though Ozil lives in Istanbul with his Turkish wife, he still faces accusations of not being Turkish enough. This partially explains why he has been so quick to accept Erdogan’s embrace—even if it has turned him into a bit of a propagandist for the controversial Turkish leader.

The second reason that the legalese of German citizenship policy matters is that it could imminently change. The government already scrapped the dual citizenship provision for most naturalized and jus soli Germans who grew up in Germany in 2014 due to pressure from the SPD, and since then, Germany has slowly come to terms with itself as an immigrant society. The transition was hastened both by the 2015 influx of refugees and by Ozil’s resignation.

Ozil’s departure was such a blow to national cohesion that it forced many white Germans to confront the reality that their country was not as welcoming as they had believed. Palestinian German politician Sawsan Chebli called the moment an “indictment of our country” and wondered if “we will ever belong? My doubts are growing daily.”

Ordinary Germans of color started a mass online movement to share their experiences of racism under the hashtag #MeTwo that fundamentally changed Germany’s conversation about race and identity. And even Grindel apologized for his actions, pledging structural change within the DFB and saying that he should have “stood by Mesut Ozil.” In ensuing years, other German soccer stars, including Antonio Rüdiger, who is Black, have also spoken out about their own experiences with racism.

This year, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SPD tapped Reem Alabali-Radovan to be Germany’s first-ever federal anti-racism officer. And this past week, Scholz’s government confirmed that Faeser’s interior ministry was drafting new nationality reform. Faeser plans to lower the citizenship application residency requirement from eight to five years, a reduction that would extend to jus soli provisions as well. She also intends to do away with all restrictions on dual citizenship.

Scholz is enthusiastic about the proposals, which he says would grant representation and voting rights to more than 9 million noncitizen residents who contribute to Germany’s economy. He also admits he has never understood conservatives’ obsession with dual citizenship. “Belonging and identity are not a zero-sum game,” Scholz told the German parliament during a debate on Monday.

But criticism of the plan has come from predictable circles within the FDP and CDU—to say nothing of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—who have resorted to their well-trodden racially tinged talking points. Spiegel’s Oliver Trenkamp wrote that the CDU “seems to be switching back to populism” in response to Scholz and Faeser’s proposals. CDU leader Friedrich Merz has warned of immigrants skirting integration and abusing Germany’s welfare state.

Scholz likely won’t need support from the AfD and CDU to pass his proposals, but the FDP is a part of his coalition and could potentially water down the reforms. It’s remarkable how out of touch these three parties’ comments are with Germany’s cultural, political, and economic trajectory of the past two decades. This contrast appears even starker with Ozil back in the headlines. At this most contentious of World Cups, the departure of Germany’s onetime playmaker has proved that it is still an open wound for the country—both on and off the field.

Scholz’s proposed citizenship law cannot single-handedly undo the racist abuse faced by Ozil and countless other Germans of color, but it can address one of Ozil’s key grievances by redefining what it means to be German in a modern, multicultural society—and prove to a skeptical global public that Ozil’s tumultuous exit four years ago has become an impetus for inclusive reform rather than polarized regression.

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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