The recently-concluded FIFA World Cup in Russia was a huge victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nation. Unlike previous editions, there were no last-minute repairs required for stadiums, and the football matches were of good quality, with matches like Portugal vs Spain exciting hardcore and casual football fans alike. Fears that tourists could face troubles with the locals proved to be unfounded as no significant incident tarnished the reputation of Russians in the world’s eyes (or at least that we know of). This edition was dominated by European teams as the traditional South American powerhouses like Argentina and Brazil were all gone by the end of the quarterfinal rounds.
None of the three previous World Cup winners was present in the semifinals as Italy could not even qualify for the tournament, while Germany and Spain were uncharacteristically eliminated in the early stages. Of the four semifinalists, Belgium, France and England all featured an eclectic range of players who had origins from different parts of the world. All these teams displayed unity in diversity and worked hard as a team to finish where they all did.
But through the course of the tournament, it became apparent that some players were being singled out more than others. Or that people started discussing the ethnicities of players in each team rather than call them as what they are: citizens of the country they represent. England forward Raheem Sterling was often a focal point of criticism by England fans irrespective of the team’s performance.
His inability to score goals often infuriated England fans, and there is a case to be made that his finishing technique is such that he does not get enough power on his shot, thereby making it easier for goalkeepers to save his shots. But he gets criticised no matter what by England fans, more than any player. Some point out that this could be because of his Jamaican roots. While it is not to say that racism is the main reason behind the abuse he gets- many football fans were not happy at the manner in which he left Liverpool FC for Manchester City FC in 2015. He was hurled with racist abuses and newspapers wrote insulting reports about his spending habits and even criticised his gun tattoo (even when he clearly explained it as a tribute to his father who was reportedly shot).
The fact is that the England manager persisted with Sterling due to what he brought to the team in the 3-5-2 formation, as the support striker behind Harry Kane (who did not score any goals in the knockout rounds and still got away with it). Many of those who criticise Sterling for not scoring goals and saying his other contributions to the England team do not matter, are also the ones who praise French forward Olivier Giroud for being a vital cog in the French World Cup win (despite Giroud having scored a grand total of zero goals in the tournament).
But Sterling is not the only one here. Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker who has scored lots of goals from a young age for his club and country, speaks about how there is a double standard adopted by people who see players like Lukaku in a different light depending on their performance:
When I started growing taller, some of the teachers and the parents would be stressing me. I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of the adults say, “Hey, how old are you? What year were you born?”
I’m like, What? Are you serious?
When I was 11 years old, I was playing for the Lièrse youth team, and one of the parents from the other team literally tried to stop me from going on the pitch. He was like, “How old is this kid? Where is his I.D.? Where is he from?”
I thought, Where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.
From a very young age, people raised doubts about him, simply because he had a different origin than others.
When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles, and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.
When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.
This is where players find it hard to believe that their country does not stick for them in their worst times. Most players give their all for the country they represent and the least the fans can do for them is to support them through thick and thin. But you could say that Europe is by and far a welcoming place for immigrants. Which is true in a way- many people from different parts of the world have settled in European nations. But there is still an undercurrent of resentment from those who feel the migrants get away with a lot of things, and they make their feelings known to them. Even those who are second or third generation settlers in Europe face such form of discrimination- be it casual or serious.
One of the more prominent examples in recent times was when a sports website tried to point out the different origins of the players present in the French squad. Benjamin Mendy did not quite like that and posted this in reply.
The reason he came out with such a clarification is that the French principle is not to discriminate on the basis of race but accept anyone who speaks French and believes in the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. Mendy and others will be well too aware that when France loses, the concept that they are French will disappear and they will be called immigrants of the country they came from- and the migrant communities will suffer from racism in different forms. He wants people to believe in them as French, irrespective of the fortunes of the French because all but one of the members of the squad are born in France, and they feel patriotic towards the country they represent.
But the worst form of racism suffered by a player was not from any of these teams- but that from the 2014 World Cup champions Germany. Mesut Ozil, who has Turkish roots has suffered more than what he should be criticized for. The main bone of contention here was this picture:
Ozil was present with Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and Turkish striker Cenk Tosun (who had grown up in Germany and also plays with the English team) at an event in London. They gave signed shirts to the Turkish president Erdogan and posed for photos with him. This naturally did not go down well in Germany, a country striving to adopt democratic ideals whereas Erdogan has suppressed dissent of any form and is implementing a democracy only in name. Some say Erdogan used this as a photo-op to attract voters in Germany (where some Turkish people are eligible to vote in, and Erdogan is banned from visiting Germany).
Let us not kid ourselves, Ozil and Gundogan should not have created such a controversy as people in Germany would never approve of such activities. They should have tried to distance themselves as quickly as possible (which Gundogan did- but also he was the one who declared Erdogan ‘My President’) and offered clarification. Instead, Ozil, at the behest of his entourage and after talks with the German president, decided to play the waiting game and the German Football Federation resisted calls from some fringe groups to exclude them from the team for this.
As it stood, Germany had a disastrous World Cup, being knocked out in the group stages. Gundogan did not play a role, while Ozil was dropped for the second match against Sweden after a mediocre outing against Mexico. He had an okayish game against Mexico, making chance after chance- only for his fellow teammates to miss them, most notably Mats Hummels shouldering a perfect cross from Ozil wide. In the end, South Korea caught out Germany and scored two late goals to condemn them to the last place in their group. This is where the unjustifiable abuse of Ozil began.
Many players were bad at the tournament. The Bayern Munchen members- particularly goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (who did not play much last season due to injury), the centre-halves Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, and forward Thomas Muller performed poorly in the tournament. But the one player who, much like Raheem Sterling, was forced to face the brunt of all criticism was Mesut Ozil. The anger from the photo earlier in the year was mixed with Germany’s poor performance to highlight Ozil as the pantomime villain of Germany. It wasn’t just the alt-right anymore. The general consensus towards Ozil across political spectrum became vile and abusive as he started his holidays. Finally, when he was to return to English football team Arsenal FC for preseason, he came out with a three-part statement which sought to clarify and attack those who abused him:
Like many people, my ancestry traces back to more than one country. Whilst I grew up in Germany, my family background has its roots ﬁrmly based in Turkey. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish. 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.
As I said, my mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest ofﬁce of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies.
Although the German media have portrayed something different, the truth is that not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today. For me, it didn’t matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President. Having respect for political ofﬁce is a view that I’m sure both the Queen and Prime Minister Theresa May share when they too hosted Erdogan in London. Whether it had been the Turkish or the German President, my actions would’ve been no different.
While Ozil should have made it clear that he understands why Germans would criticise him over his meeting, there may be external factors we do not know of like whether he has family in Turkey that would be affected by Erdogan if he refused to answer his calls. Something which has happened before.
But the crux of the issue I want to tackle is the racism he suffered because of this as well as the hypocrisy of the people in the German federation. They talked about Ozil as the reason for Germany’s poor performance, with even the Bayern president sticking it in and saying he is ‘an excuse of a footballer’. I think that is a very stupid statement to make considering he is the 5-time DFB Player of the Year (Germany’s best footballer) and the Bayern President gets a convenient excuse of deflecting pressure away from his beloved Bayern gang. As Ozil said: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
This is the point I feel needs to be discussed more: While I still would condemn Ozil for being naive in accepting the invitation (or rather he has interests in Turkey as he quit Turkish citizenship early on to play for Germany and Turkish are very nationalistic and haven’t accepted him as their own till recently), the fact is this issue was conveniently brought up by vested interests in the DFB for using him as a smokescreen to deflect away from the wider issues that German football faces and this sets a bad precedent for future players for Germany who come from diverse backgrounds. Would they want to represent Germany again? Thankfully, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought better than this and reiterated that Germany was welcome to all backgrounds and wished Ozil well in the backdrop of all this chaos. The German FA president Griendel is a person who sees multiculturalism as a myth and his comments concerning Ozil should not have come as a surprise.
So, what does this hold for India? We know that the U.S. and Europe have for long espoused multicultural values and actively promoted it, but such examples of hypocrisy have come up from time to time. India is a similar case, where we have brought together vastly diverse communities from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh. We celebrate our successes over the last 70 years in bringing together people of various backgrounds and make them believe in the idea of India.
But like both USA and Europe, we have had our fair share of problems. As Ozil said, he has two hearts- German and Turkish. He loves to represent Germany, but his family wants him to never forget his roots. We have many communities in India, wherein they struggle to maintain their dying traditions while trying to keep up with modern India. One of the challenges the government faces is to provide an environment to prevent such small yet diverse cultures from dying out as they are also part of what makes India great.
We know that since the beginning of India, there has been a protest against the imposition of Hindi, particularly in the southern states. While those who can learn a third language- apart from their mother tongue and English- most certainly should, there are others who struggle with that. Any attempt to impose Hindi on them in the name of nationalism should be discouraged as that leads to a division between two sides and the concept of an India inclusive to all declines in their eyes. This is something that will threaten to divide the country and should not be actively encouraged as such because some might see it as an attempt to erode their local culture as well.
Finally, of course, the casual racism faced by people when they move to different parts of the country. We still see Africans studying in India as inferior (some of us anyway), we make fun of people from the Northeast as ‘Chinese’, discriminate between North and South Indians based on colour and often do what we just saw from the examples in the article: confuse ethnicity with nationality. Those who have Indian citizenship should be regarded as one, and their cultures should be appreciated rather than mocked. This is what I want to tell all my friends across the world.
To conclude, with the rise of nationalism worldwide, the multicultural concept is under threat. We should avoid racism in any form, stop discriminating against people based on their origins and march together as citizens of the country and the world.