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German Soccer Player Says He Quit National Team Because Of Racism


One of the stars of Germany's national soccer team has quit. He says he's being made the scapegoat of the team's disappointing performance in the World Cup because of his Turkish ancestry. Mesut Ozil shared his lengthy resignation letter through screenshots on social media yesterday, creating a storm of controversy in the process. NPR's Martin Kaste joins us now on the line from Kreuzberg, a neighborhood in Berlin with a big population of Germans of Turkish descent. And Martin, to start, I gather this didn't just start with yesterday's tweets and Instagram posts, right? What's the background here?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: No. This started back in May, when Ozil and another German player of Turkish descent met with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey, and posed for photos with him, smiling, giving him jerseys. You know, it was in London. It was ostensibly for some sort of a charitable event.

But those photos did not go over well in Germany. And a lot of Germans looked at those photos and said, these are players, especially Ozil now, since he's the one at issue today, who does not feel necessarily devoted to Germany or to German values of democracy, especially given Erdogan's increasing sort of strongman role in Turkey. So that was the beginning of the sort of controversy. And then, when the German team sort of wiped out in the World Cup a few weeks ago, a lot of people said, see, Ozil sowed dissension and disunity on that team, and this is what happened.

CORNISH: So now that he's quit the German team and shared that announcement publicly, what did he say in that long resignation letter?

KASTE: Well, this is when he finally addressed the issue. He hadn't said much about it. But now, in this sort of very bitter, impassioned tweet - or Instagram post, he recalled how often over the years he'd been called epithets based on his Turkish roots by fans, some pretty vile stuff. He also felt he was being singled out. He said other members of the German football team who had roots that were non-German didn't get called by their ethnic roots, but he was always called Turkish-German.

And, you know, he said one player had posed with Vladimir Putin - no big deal there. So he thought all of this kind of boils down to a form of racism. And sort of the quote of the entire post was when he said, I am a German when we win, but I'm an immigrant when we lose.

CORNISH: It's not only soccer fans reacting to this, right? What have you been hearing in Germany today?

KASTE: Yeah. No, it's becoming a much bigger issue. It's beyond soccer. The German national team had sort of been held up as the symbol of sort of the new German attitude towards nationality, this new sort of melting-pot Germany with a - you know, a multiracial, multi-ethnic composition. You know, it was held up as so much for so long, especially given this wave of migrants coming in. And so for this star to all of a sudden say, I can't bear to put on that shirt anymore, one of the other things he said in that post - I'm paraphrasing, but he said he couldn't really put on the German shirt anymore - well, that became symbolic, or it's becoming symbolic of this question of whether integration is working in Germany, whether nationality can be defined beyond ethnicity in this country.

I'm right now here in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin, which is traditionally a very Turkish neighborhood. And I talked to a number of people about it. And they said it's a hot topic here. And one man named Ali Sitak (ph), you know, he said - he kind of made the gesture of curtains opening. He said, you know, some people say, well, this is an alarm, the fact that this happened. But for him, it's always been this way.

ALI SITAK: The Germans are kind of showing this strange reaction. Like, every time that something like that happens, they are saying, oh, my God, is the integration not - the process is not working well. Of course not. Like, everyone knows that.

KASTE: And I have to add there that Sitak himself did not like the fact that Ozil had posed with Erdogan. He doesn't like Erdogan. You know, he thought that Erdogan represents a lot of the wrong values. But for him, that's a separate issue from this question of whether or not Ozil was always being somehow singled out because of his Turkish roots.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste speaking to us from Berlin. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.


Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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