The World Cup has reached the-semi-final stage. In the normal football universe, we would be looking forward to a last-four meeting with Croatia right now. German fans everywhere would be celebrating yet another victory over England, possibly from the penalty spot. Then we all wake up.
Before this summer’s debacle in Russia, die Mannschaft had reached the semi-finals in the last four tournaments. They reached the final in two of these, winning one of them. This time four years ago, we were all celebrating the epochal 7-1 semi-final triumph over hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte.
Right now, England and France are looking at doubling their World Cup trophy tally. Belgium and Croatia are hoping to grace the global showpiece for the first time. Meanwhile, everybody involved with the German team, including all of us pundits and supporters, are still trying to pick the bones from what was a miserable and truly forgettable fortnight in Russia.
If we were just concerned with footballing matters, it would be bad enough. But what we are seeing goes well beyond that. A lack of unity on the pitch. Serious disruption off it. Unhappiness with the accommodation at Vatutinki. Talk of Bavarian and Bling-Bling cliques. Wifi services being shut down in order to prevent players from playing video games in the small hours of the morning. Players smiling with Turkish tyrants.
If it were Italy, Cameroon, Argentina or England, we would be laughing right now. But this was the story of the German national team.
Calm before the storm
Having made his excuses for the team’s spectacular failure, coach Joachim Löw took the criticism firmly on the chin. Both the coach and the DFB, preferring not to panic, decided to keep things on track. Amid the disappointment, there was a sense of slowly-returning normality, and a desire to put things back together again.
This calm was shattered later in the week, when team manager Oliver Bierhoff attempted to come clean about some of the decisions that had been made (or had not been made) during the buildup to the campaign.
In an interview with Die Welt (reported here in English on the Deutsche Welle website), Bierhoff made it clear that he and the DFB had completely misread the public mood following the meeting of Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
— ITV News (@itvnews) May 15, 2018
In discussing the Erdoğan affair, Bierhoff acknowledged that he and the DFB had underestimated its impact. He then went on to say that it might have been a better idea to leave Özil at home. It was like waving a red rag in front of a bull.
No sooner had the interview been released, there was a massive media reaction. For some, Bierhoff had hung Özil out to dry. The Euro 1996 winner had clearly acknowledged that it was his and the DFB’s fault, but this was quickly twisted by some commentators into an attempt to scapegoat Özil for the team’s failure.
In the following days, Bierhoff sought to clarify his remarks. There had been no intention to scapegoat Özil. All he had looked to do was highlight a painful boil that had become increasingly difficult to lance. The problem was not so much the player’s decision to be photographed with Erdoğan, but what had happened afterwards.
So, what did happen? Here, we can only piece things together as best we can. Bierhoff had stated that he and the DFB “had never forced players in the German national team to do anything, but had always tried to convince them”. He followed this by saying that “we [Bierhoff and the DFB] had failed with Mesut”.
Here, Bierhoff is clearly referring to the attempts that would have been made to clear things up as quickly as possible, and reduce the fallout. To move on, and concentrate on playing football.
Following the release of the controversial photographs, DFB president Reinhard Grindel had been quick to make a statement. The players had been wrong to meet Erdoğan, and the message was unequivocal.
DFB (Germany's FA) President Reinhard Grindel tweeted:
"Football and the DFB stand for values that are not sufficiently respected by Mr. Erdogan. It's not good that our players are letting themselves be exploited for the good of his campaign." pic.twitter.com/lAzOAyN1OC
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) May 14, 2018
This is clear enough. The plan was to speak to both players, get the matter knocked on the head, and move on.
Backed into a corner
From what we can take out of all this, the attempt at intercession was only partly successful. İlkay Gündoğan quickly delivered a statement. It was to the point, and apologetic. Even if one chose to take his reasons for referring to Erdoğan as “my president” with a grain of salt, it was clear that Gündoğan’s heart was in the right place.
When the Manchester City man was booed in the friendly against Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen, you could see the distraught look on his face. It was a look of genuine contrition.
There was no similar response from Özil, who was clearly hoping that the problem would disappear once the German squad had arrived in Russia. The player had been allowed to stay away from an otherwise compulsory media event that everybody else (including Gündoğan) had attended. He was also left out of the final friendly against the Saudis, ostensibly for a fitness problem.
In failing to address the issue, Özil had effectively backed himself into a corner. Both players should have apologised without being prompted. Gündoğan did. Özil did not. His refusal to make any sort of statement was bad enough. To stay away from the media event, for fear of having to face awkward questions, suggested that there was something deeper at play.
At this point, one could argue that Özil had established his position. He had decided, for some reason or another, not to stand with the DFB and its values. It would have been perfectly reasonable to drop him from the squad.
Lack of clarity
One can only imagine what must have been going through Oliver Bierhoff’s mind. Having to make a decision that would have implications beyond football. One that would slice deeply into the ongoing and increasingly fraught debate about migration and integration in Germany.
Given the reaction to Bierhoff’s comments after the event and his thought processes at the time, one has to wonder what might have happened had he made the decision to drop Özil. One can only imagine what it would have been like to make such a decision, and the noise that would have been coming from all sides. It was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The problem is not that Özil had his photograph taken with Erdoğan. It was the lack of contrition, and the resulting lack of clarity regarding his association with the Turkish leader. An apology of some sort was necessary to move things on. Instead, things just simmered.
It is laughable to suggest that Erdoğan, with his insider agent Özil, had single-handedly derailed Germany’s World Cup plans (as some are suggesting that Bierhoff is suggesting). But at least one player has come out and said that the problem was far bigger than many would like to believe.
In the end, Bierhoff, Löw and co decided to gamble. They clearly could not jettison Özil, for fear of the backlash and accusations of racism. So they too decided to try work through the problem by playing it down. Like the team’s poor results leading into the tournament, it was a sticky situation that would surely fix itself in the end.
It did not.
It is true that the DFB could have been more forthright in condemning those German supporters who have overstepped the mark in their criticism of Özil and Gündoğan. But some of the things that have been posted on social media, including accusations of racism against Bierhoff and the DFB, is patently absurd.
The German football association seems to be trying its best to prevent any foreign born player having a choice opting to play for Germany. Crazy how they treat Özil. Appalling team spirit. #Grindel
— Goalimpact (@Goalimpact) July 8, 2018
Racism should be condemned. In every shape and form. But legitimate criticism of questionable political associations should remain acceptable. In Özil’s case, nobody has been willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Instead, any critic is immediately deemed “racist”, an AfD sympathiser, or worse.
The elephant in the room
One could argue that Bierhoff’s comments after the event were foolish. Cowardly, even. There is nothing wrong with holding this position. But to suggest that there were any racial overtones is completely ridiculous, and insults everybody’s intelligence.
Bierhoff’s obsession with marketing and the Mannschaft’s brand image may leave plenty to be desired, but his commitment to the team and its modern identity is beyond question. His ability to handle a crisis has clearly been questioned, but there is no agenda. Oliver Bierhoff is no Vitaly Mutko.
That elephant in the room, of course, is Özil’s relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The accepted narrative is that the recent photo moment was all a one-off, a mistake, a case of the players being duped. This, of course, is nonsense.
Had the players been at a random public event where Erdoğan had turned up and asked for a photograph, they could be excused. They had been invited to a private London meeting. They had brought club shirts with them as gifts. Everybody was perfectly groomed for the occasion.
Nobody had been forced into doing anything. It was not a matter of being “polite”. Emre Can, another German international playing in England, had refused the invitation to meet the Turkish president.
As for the whole thing being a mistake, one can excuse Gündoğan. For Özil on the other hand, this sort of thing was nothing new. He has met with the Turkish president many times before, and could not possibly hope to pass it off as a one off mistake. Questions would only have elicited more questions, so he chose to clam up instead.
Clearing the air
The DFB’s fudging of the whole affair only served to cloud the waters even further. It was no surprise that Özil looked dispirited and demotivated on the pitch in Russia. Nobody knew where anybody stood, and nobody had been provided with any straight answers. This included the DFB itself, the rest of the squad, the media, and the team’s supporters.
For me, as a long-time supporter of the German team, Bierhoff had taken a dangerous step. Especially given the political climate, where anything that threatens the accepted narrative is inherently dangerous. But it all really comes down to one simple question. An answer to which will not necessarily bring closure, but would certainly provide clarity.
The latest twist has seen Özil’s father make a statement condemning Bierhoff and the DFB, suggesting that his son should call it a day. Meanwhile, Reinhard Grindel has reiterated his call for the player to clear the air.
It is, for all intents and purposes, an ultimatum.
DFB president Reinhard Grindel: "Mesut Özil has not commented yet (on the Erdogan photo) which disappointed many fans because they have questions and they rightly expect an answer. I think he should publicly explain himself when he returns from vacation" [Kicker] pic.twitter.com/8tEVeI5YDZ
— Bayern & Germany (@iMiaSanMia) July 8, 2018
I would be pleasantly surprised if Özil did stand up and admit that he had made a mistake. But this is unlikely to happen. There is clearly some long-standing connection between himself and Erdoğan, and it is unlikely that Özil will risk this for the sake of winning a few more international caps. It could well be that we have seen the last of him in the Nationaltrikot.
Given that Özil is a great player and has produced some magic moments, those last images of him in a German shirt, remonstrating on the sidelines with an angry fan, is doubly sad.