Within two weeks after the FIFA World Cup 2018, German international midfielder Mesut Ozil announced his retirement from the national team, alleging racism on the part of the German Football Federation. The retirement of Ozil, who plays for English Premier League heavyweights Arsenal, hogged the headlines as he is one of the top players in the world. But his is not the only case of racism in the football fraternity. The increasing popularity of the game notwithstanding, racism has almost been regular in international football over the years.
The 29-year-old German, however, made significant strides during his time in the national team. He was ranked 'footballer of the year' five times in German shirt -- three times after conquering the World Cup in 2014 and twice before. He had 23 goals and 40 assists in 92 international appearances for the country. He was also one of the reasons behind Germany's scintillating form up until this year's football extravaganza in Russia. Ozil was ranked among the top players for making accurate passes from the middle third, attacking from that area of the field, creating chance after chance for goals, winning possession from the attacking midfield and also, hitting the highest number of corners during Germany's WC winning mission in 2014.
Depending on his form and flair, it was only natural that a lot of hope was riding on him during this WC as well. But this time he could not live up to expectation as the entire German team collapsed. It was, in fact, a disintegration by the entire team that lacked penetration overall, as was admitted by the players later on.
But the German pundits and media were badly in need of a scapegoat. Ozil's pre-WC 'controversial' meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan provided them with the much-needed fillip. Prior to the World Cup in Russia, a photo had surfaced of the Turkish-rooted Muslim player with the long-running president of Germany's neighbouring country. Ozil said he had met the president along with fellow German national player Ilkay Gundogan, who also has a Turkish root. The photo was widely deemed in Germany as an endorsement of Erdogan by Ozil ahead of the recent presidential polls in Turkey.
In Germany, Erdogan is widely seen as a tyrant especially after the way he punished the groups who had attempted a coup to topple him in Turkey in 2016. Ozil thus being in the same photograph with the political figure enraged the German right-wing politicians.
Germany's debacle in the WC further allowed the German conservatives, who are opposing Angela Merkel's immigration policy, to take to the social media and spew their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Ozil was simply in their crosshairs. It was disgraceful that even after the player published four letters clarifying his side of the story, numerous former players of Germany chided him.
Ozil's is not the only case of racism in football during this WC. Many social commentators had shouted 'foul' at the way players of especially African origin were depicted during the Russia event 2018. In fact, there were numerous occasions and instances when the international media complimented the African teams for their so-called "physicality" and "raw energy", rather than referring to their fast-improving footballing nous and tactics.
For example, British reality TV star Alan Sugar made a racist comment on twitter calling the Senegalese team "people selling sunglasses on beaches", rather than being the world-class players that they were. Ahead of Japan's bout with Sadio Mane's sensational Senegal team on June 24, competing coach Akira Nishino said, "[Against Senegal] rather than physicality, we have to use our brain to come up with some tactics and strategies."
Even the players in European teams were not exempted from this. Time and again, midfielder Paul Pogba of eventual champions France was symbolically patted on the back by some match commentators for his "power and physicality".
Racist remarks are also thrown in abundance by the fans at the galleries and players in the opposing team.
During a friendly match between AC Milan and Pro Patria in January 2013, the former's Kevin Prince Boateng faced monkey noises and racial slurs from spectators at the gallery. Twenty-five minutes into the match, he took the ball, kicked it at the direction of his abusers and walked off the field. In an act of solidarity, all the other players walked off the field as well. Later Boateng had told reporters, "I said to myself, in this kind of environment, in this situation, I don't want to play football anymore."
Similar humiliation was faced by Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o while playing for Barcelona against Real Zarazoga in February 2006. He was, however, convinced by his fellow players and coach from walking off the field.
In another match, a banana was thrown at the same player. But this time, the player stopped for a few seconds prior to a corner, picked up the banana, peeled it and ate it up, thus showing his sportsmanship in the face of racist gestures.
During a match between Liverpool and Manchester United in 2011, Luis Suarez was accused of hurling racial slurs at another French footballer Patrice Evra. Later, Suarez was proven guilty. He was fined and banned from playing eight consecutive matches. There are numerous other incidents like this when blatant acts of racism had tested the patience of players and teams.
Psychiatrists say racism stems from the sheer sense of hatred. But football is about something else. Football makes people laugh and sometimes cry. It gives spectators pure fun. Hence, the game's global governing body FIFA, along with its associations, is trying its best to put things in order in a way that can ensure greater solidarity among people across the continents. Ironically, racism still continues to rear its ugly head in a world that is increasingly polarised by right-wing populism.
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