The “beautiful game” has been revealing many ugly truths about racism and identity in Europe.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, the French and German national soccer teams have found themselves at the center of a renewed debate about race, assimilation and national identity that has highlighted the precarious position that many nonwhite immigrants and first-generation people find themselves in while living in the West.
On Sunday, the player Mesut Ozil announced in a series of powerful and pained social media posts that he was quitting the German national team due to racism and mistreatment from the German media, sponsors and the German Football Association (DFB). At the heart of his decision was German backlash to a photograph that Ozil took with Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan in May during a visit in London. German media commentators called the photo “a major blow to the debate over integration.” The 29-year-old footballer, who was born in Germany and is of Turkish descent and who was a part of the German squad that won the 2014 World Cup, said the German football association and the media blamed him and his dual heritage for Germany’s lackluster performance in this year’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, Africans and black people around the world celebrated France and its players of African descent. As Kenyan writer Patrick Gathara noted in The Post, many joyfully claimed the team as “African,” including Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, who declared that France was the “only African team in the finals.” South African comedian and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah also got in on the joke.
Nonblack French people reacted with hostile outrage over any hint of associating their team with Africa. French writers have dismissed the celebration as coming from liberals in the United States “mimicking the far Right’s obsession with race and origins,” and have said that “identity politics activists are paving the way for this kind of racist backlash.” Even the French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, felt so aggrieved by comparisons to Africa that he felt compelled to write a formal letter to Noah, saying that by calling them African, he was “denying their Frenchness.”
It is absurd to equate black and African joy and pride at seeing the success of the players with the ideology of racists and white supremacists. Besides, for a country that claims to not see race, it was French national coach Laurent Blanc who reportedly backed a plan to impose limits on black and Arab players in 2011.
Moreover, placing the blame on the United States ignores the voices of black French writers who speak out on racism in France, as well as Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora who are having meaningful conversations about what this team means to us. For us, being African is worthy of celebration.
So perhaps France should ask itself what is so appalling about Africa that it must be erased in favor of French identity. Doing so fits the definition of white supremacy. Or a reflection of white French fragility. Most likely, it’s both.
It is true that the players have spoken about being proud of playing for France. One of them, Adil Rami, has talked about feeling both French and Moroccan. No one is trying to erase Frenchness, as Noah pointed out. We are saying that it is possible to celebrate both their Frenchness and their Africanness.
French critics point out the fact that black French players are pro-France and demand that people listen their own words. But they should pay attention to Ozil’s decision to give up the German jersey for good. As should anyone who thinks that success and fame insulate immigrants and those with foreign roots from racism.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote. “This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to Germany schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society.” The president of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, told Sport Bild that Germany will not miss him and that he had been “playing s— for years.” Hard to believe this, considering Ozil played in every World Cup game in 2014 and has racked up 40 assists and 23 goals in his 92 international appearances for Germany. He also received the German Football Ambassador Public Award in 2015, as well as an award for being a model of successful integration (even though he is German-born). Now, Germany has lost one of its great young players due to its hypocrisies and double standards on race. It’s a shameful own goal on Germany’s part.
The questions about Ozil’s loyalties to Germany and France’s emphasis on stomping out African identity in favor of “Frenchness” show that when Europe speaks of integration, it is really rejecting multiculturalism in favor of assimilation, in which those who desire acceptance must abandon their roots.
True integration confers responsibilities on the cultural majority to ensure equal treatment. Integration means the majority culture and political structures should end discrimination in job opportunities. True integration means immigrants and their children shouldn’t have to rescue babies from buildings, sing the national anthem at every beck and call, or win international championships to be accepted as French, German or Belgian.
Ozil speaks for many diaspora people when he celebrates his hyphenated identity. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” he wrote. “During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day.” It’s sad to see that in 2018, the hearts of France and Germany seem too small to fully accept and celebrate the dual identities of immigrants and their sons and daughters, whether they be shopkeepers or soccer superstars.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria