For Reinhard Grindel, the leader of Germany’s soccer 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 program that only months ago was considered a symbol of unity for the country and one of the most unstoppable forces in sports.
Earlier 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 the 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, known as the D.F.B., has attempted to answer accusations of racism and discrimination stemming from the ugly departure this summer of Mesut Özil, a World Cup-winning playmaker, 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
Now the allegation of bigotry and discrimination from a soccer icon with roots in Germany’s sizable Turkish community has become a central focus in Germany’s campaign to stage the 2024 Euro, soccer’s biggest tournament outside the World Cup. The only opponent — Turkey.
Grindel, the 61-year-old bespectacled former politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, 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 — whether fair or not — represent a fundamental challenge to an image the soccer federation has been keen to cultivate since it successfully played host to the 2006 World Cup. Beginning with that event, the D.F.B. has showcased soccer 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 as it seeks to secure its first major tournament since that cheery month of sunshine and soccer 12 years ago?
“We all thought sport would be capable of integrating people into society, but it was not true,” Gunter Gebauer, a philosopher and expert on sports at the Free University of Berlin, said.
Özil’s incendiary words came after the player and the federation made a series of missteps. The crisis started in May, before the World Cup, with an ill-advised photo op in London. Özil and a fellow national team player of Turkish descent, Ilkay Gundogan, posed for a photograph with Turkey’s authoritarian and nationalist 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 soccer 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. The two players then met with Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after the criticism of their meeting with the Turkish leader.
Gundogan, who required the services of a psychologist amid the furor, released a statement, explaining his motivations for the meeting. Özil decided not to, after being told by federation officials that the issue was over and that he should concentrate on preparing himself for the World Cup, according to people close to him.