The Sunday before last, German footballer and 2014 World Cup winner, Mesut Özil caused huge controversy, especially in Germany, when he retired from international football because, to unhelpfully condense the whole affair into one sentence, ‘racism should never ever be accepted’.
The whole unseemly episode began when Özil and German team-mate Ilkay Gundoğan, who both enjoy mixed Turkish-German ancestry, met with Turkey’s autocratic president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan on the 13th May. The pair were widely criticized for the event, seen as useful PR for Erdoğan just weeks before an election. A month later, Germany suffered a shock exit from the World Cup, crashing out of the tournament bottom of their group. It wasn’t long before some in the German footballing establishment began to use openings in the media to point to Özil’s participation in the photo-op and his on-field performances (and sometimes an ambiguous fusion of the two) as (partly) responsible for the team’s abysmal performance. Other prominent voices resorted to vomiting their overt bigotry at Özil even before the World Cup had commenced.
Özil’s retirement has dominated German headlines for days, in particular because he accused commercial partners, leading figures in Germany’s football federation, abusive fans, and the German media of singling him out on account of his mixed heritage and treating him ‘as a German when we win’ and ‘an immigrant when we lose’—treatment recognizable to anyone familiar with narratives about the ‘good’ immigrant.
Jan Leyk, a DJ and former reality TV star in Germany, recently posted a video criticizing Özil. The video is difficult to find online, despite having gone viral across private social networks in Germany. Leyk’s three minute diatribe against Özil clearly struck a chord with a large segment of the country and merits attention for this reason alone. It is here (note, the video is in German).
In the video, Leyk argues that he will be glad to see the back of Özil, not because of Özil’s mixed heritage, but because he is an ‘arsehole’. Leyk makes a number of claims and rhetorical moves that (a) suggest his motives are not entirely transparent to himself—specifically, that his criticism of Özil is steeped precisely in the anti-immigrant tropes and sentiments which Özil’s statement of resignation points out; or (b) are false.
(1) Leyk claims that Özil criticizes Leyk (and people like him) for being racist.
Du [Mesut Özil] bist einfach ein Arschloch. Und warum? Weil du mich als Rassisten beschimpfst, und viele andere da draußen auch. Wir sind keine Rassisten nur weil wir dein Verhalten scheiße finden; nur weil du, Vollidiot, mit irgend einem Arschlochpolitiker, der alles andere als für Recht und Freiheit steht, ein Foto machst, das auch noch politisch verwendet wird, und du mir dann einen erzählst, von wegen ihr habt euch nur über Fussball unterhalten und du wusstest natürlich nicht, welche Konsequenzen das Ganze hat und sonst was.
You are simply an arsehole. And why? Because you insult me, and many out there, too, by calling us racists. We aren’t racists just because we find your behaviour shitty; just because you, total idiot, take a photo with some arsehole-politician who stands for anything but rights and freedom, which is then also exploited for political purposes, and you then tell me as if you just talked about football and of course you didn’t know the consequences of your actions and so on.
Özil does no such thing, unless Leyk counts himself among the people who have resorted to the kind of overt abuse Özil identifies, or those who think that the team’s performance at the World Cup was meaningfully impacted by a misguided publicity session. Leyk has a perfectly reasonable broader point: that criticizing someone for their behaviour is not ipso facto racist. And it seems obvious to all that the photo with Erdoğan was a serious mistake and that Özil’s apolitical excuses are less than convincing. However, the criticism Özil points out in his statement does not happen in a vacuum. And it seems plausible that the disproportionate attention paid to the photo-op, and the laughable way it was connected to Germany’s failure to progress in the tournament, are connected to Özil’s ethnicity.
2) Leyk claims that it doesn’t matter where Özil comes from—he is being criticized for behaving like an arsehole.
Mir ist es doch kackegal ob du aus der Türkei kommst, aus Tadschikistan, aus Kolumbien, oder halt nun mal aus Deutschland. Das spielt keine Rolle. Du verhälst dich wie ein Arschloch.
I don’t give a crap whether you’re from Turkey, Tajikistan, Columbia, or as a matter of fact Germany. That plays no role. You’re behaving like an arsehole.
The rhetorical move performed here will be familiar to anyone who has had the displeasure of conversing with racists, however well-intentioned, rabid, implicit, or overt. Leyk is delivering the nationality equivalent of ‘I don’t care if you’re black, yellow, or green with purple spots’ that (almost?) invariably prefaces a racist statement—what philosopher Jennifer Saul would call a ‘racial figleaf’. This adaptation of a racist conversational trope might be forgiven on the grounds that, in many contexts, treating someone’s nationality as irrelevant to the merit of their actions is appropriate. However, in this case it is worsened by the fact that Özil’s nationality clearly is relevant. Özil behaved deplorably in giving unnecessary free PR to Erdoğan. But the fact that he is Turkish makes it much more understandable why, as a relatively apolitical public figure, he felt it appropriate to do so (though, granted, it might additionally have given him special countervailing obligations to avoid the event). Had Özil been from Tajikistan or Columbia, meeting with Erdoğan would have been much stranger and, I think, more criticizable on balance. This is something Leyk’s purportedly nation-blind analysis misses.
3) Leyk claims that Özil disrespected the people of his “supposed” homeland, including his fans, by calling them racists.
Dir geht es viel zu gut. Du steckst dir jeden Monat Millionen ein und bist dann noch nicht mal in der Lage, in dem Land vernünftig zu artikulieren und zu rechtfertigen, das dich groß gemacht hat. Du beschimpfst Mensche, die die letzen zehn Jahre deine Trikots getragen haben, die dich unterstützt haben, die dich ausgebildet haben, die dich groß gemacht haben, als Rassisten.
Life’s too good for you. You cash your cheques for millions every month and then aren’t even prepared to reasonably articulate and justify in the country that made you big. You insult people who have worn your shirt for the last ten years, who have supported you, who trained you, who made you big, by calling them racists.
The claim that Özil is calling regular fans racists is false, as already discussed.
More interestingly, whether Leyk realizes it or not, this part of his diatribe trades in well-worn anti-immigrant tropes. One is that immigrant successes redound to the society that took them in, rather than their own graft. This trope sits uncomfortably alongside another, which hails ‘good’ immigrants for ‘pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps’, although the apparent inconsistency is resolved by looking at which immigrant groups tend to be deemed bootstrappers and which parasites. The second, relatedly, is that to complain about such a society is to show ingratitude. And if anything upsets avowed (probably racist) non-racists more than anything, it is an ungrateful immigrant (for an interesting in-depth, personal piece on the phenomenon, see here).
The whole tone of this point seems all the more racialized by the fact that Özil isn’t an immigrant to Germany, but was born and raised there. It also underscored by the fact that Leyk goes on to refer to Germany as Özil’s ‘”vermeintliche” Heimat’ (‘”supposed” homeland’), while criticizing him for releasing his resignation statement in English. The scare quotes unnecessarily and menacingly tie Özil’s decision to write in English, for which there may be good reasons Leyk doesn’t stop to consider, to his commitment to his German nationality.
4) Leyk claims that Mesut Özil is worthless and Germany doesn’t need him.
Mesut Özil, du bist in meinen Augen ‘ne richtig kleine Wurst und wir brauchen dich überhaupt garnicht. Ich bin froh, dass du, Pimmelgesicht, echt weg bist.
Mesut Özil, in my eyes you’re a complete pissant and we absolutely don’t need you. I’m glad that you, dickface, are really gone.
If any piece of anti-immigrant rhetoric trumps (no pun intended) all others, it has to be the one expressing the ‘Fuck off back to where you came from, we don’t need you here!’ sentiment. Now Leyk doesn’t quite say this explicitly, since he is talking ostensibly about the German football team. But the focus of the diatribe blurs Özil as member of the national team and Özil as a member of the German nation, not merely because of the tropes Leyk invokes, but the way he signs off: ‘Uns geht’s gut, alles is cool in Deutschland und wir brauchen diese Kackstimmung überhaupt kein garnicht’ (‘We’re doing fine, everything’s fine in Germany, and we don’t need this foul mood here at all’), presenting Özil as a foreign interloper into a country that doesn’t need him or his troubles.
5) Leyk claims Mesut Özil has long been a poor footballer.
Uli Hoeneß hat komplett Recht. Ich weiss nicht wann du den letzten vernünftigen Pass gespielt hast.
Uli Hoeneß is completely right. I don’t know when you last played a decent pass.
Uli Hoeneß actually claimed that Özil hasn’t made a tackle since before the 2014 World Cup in an interview in which he slammed the footballer’s performances over the last few years, and not that he has played no decent passes since then. Hoeneß’s accusation is strange, since Özil is an advanced creative forward. Accusing him of failing to make tackles (which Özil obviously has made since 2014) is a little like criticizing a central defender for failing to assist goals. Worse still, Leyk’s version of the claim here is demonstrably false: in the 87th minute of the final World Cup game against South Korea, Özil played an exquisitely accurate cross to Mats Hummels who, instead of heading the ball in as expected, missed it completely and watched it ricochet off his shoulder and over the goal. Had Hummels scored as one would have expected, Germany would almost certainly have qualified for the next round. In footballing terms, therefore, Özil last played a decent pass, and a fantastic game-winning one at that, a few minutes ago.
The substance of the claim, of course, is that Özil has been underwhelming as a player for a while. But this is belied by the fact that in the last seven years Özil has won the German national team player of the year award five times, most recently in 2016. Sure, he had an underwhelming tournament (exquisite cross notwithstanding). But then, who on the German team didn’t?
So, the vast majority of Leyk’s criticisms horribly misfire, betraying an undercurrent of xenophobia of which he appears unaware. Is Jan Leyk a racist? Probably, a bit (on the practical difficulty of this question, see here). But whether or not he is, the things he says certainly rely on what look like racist suppositions about (supposed) immigrants, their duties, and their supposed failings.