The whole soccer community has been occupied with the ongoing European Championship for a while.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the heartbeats of soccer fans and notice the excitement on their faces. It is impossible not to be passionate about this sport that attracts millions of people. It is not possible to come up with only a few reasons for the growing popularity of soccer and it is also not possible to explain this popularity by just calling it a sport. Soccer is a social phenomenon and it reflects the synthesis of individual, collective and political dynamics. For this reason, it is not reasonable to attempt to explain the passion for this sport from a single perspective and it is not proper to identify sports-related motives behind this passion. I think there is no further need to elaborate on the social impact of this sport which is a product of modern industrial society and urbanization. To make a long story short, soccer is a political, cultural, commercial and social phenomenon. Political parties are like small associations compared to soccer federations.
It is impossible that a sport like soccer which affects society as a whole does not reflect the main political disagreements. It is also a reality that these conflicts and disagreements are expressed in a different way in soccer. This is evidenced in the examples of racism and violence inside and outside the football arena. From this perspective, the vicious and comprehensive campaign raised by the far right and neo-Nazis in Germany against Mesut Özil is an interesting case. Before answering the question of why Özil is being targeted, let us take a closer look at the characteristics of soccer that make it a center of political and social contradictions.
Çandar and Cemal’s columns
For those who try to understand passion in soccer, I would recommend the detailed interview with Hasan Cemal and Cengiz Çandar published by the Hürriyet daily. It is not possible to understand the place and importance soccer has in the lives of these two leading names from a rational standpoint, though this interview sheds light on the role of soccer in their private lives. Çandar’s columns on Fenerbahçe and match rigging are interesting. This is not because they are not objective; they are interesting because in these columns Çandar raises the objections of millions of fans. To him, Fenerbahçe is suffering from unfair treatment and this unfairness stems from attempts to hold only Fenerbahçe responsible.
What makes Çandar’s columns and views on soccer more attractive and appealing to readers is the passion in them. It is known that Cemal is a Galatasaray fan. If you read his columns, you know that he supports Barcelona. His support for Galatasaray stems from his childhood; it is emotional. But his passion for Barcelona reflects the artistic and aesthetic dimension of soccer; it is mature. You cannot explain the relations and links between these two columnists, who are known for their struggles during the democratization process in Turkey and their efforts to promote fundamental human rights and the national squad through nationalistic passions and sentiments.
For them, the national team is like Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray. It is normal when Galatasaray fans support Hamburg in a game between Hamburg and Fenerbahçe. The support for the national team is also normal. There is strong passion for soccer in this relationship; this is a moment where the individual develops a sense of belonging to the group and solidarity with other members of the group. Those who watch the scene when Çarşı (a famous fan group of the Beşiktaş soccer club) takes to the streets before a Beşiktaş game live in the moment when the passion associated with soccer is expressed.
Çarşı expressed support for Galatasaray when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized Galatasaray; this implies that passion for soccer is extremely sensitive. It may seem a little bit absurd and unrealistic to see that this sport, which features such great characteristics, is open to racist and discriminatory views and sentiments. However, it is normal for soccer, which is integrated with society, because it represents social values via its audience as well as sports clubs. Unlike general views, racism is not a marginal phenomenon among fans.
It is also possible to observe this in the attitudes of club administrators. The Brazilian soccer federation raised objections over the inclusion of a black player in the Uruguay national team in the early years of the world championship; this was a clear example of racist attitudes. Likewise, in the 1980s, the German soccer federation held similar views. Back then, Germany, a great soccer nation in Europe, made sure the national squad did not include immigrants; to this end, it was comparable to the incentives provided to immigrants to return to their original countries. This attitude was also predominant in France until it started to change with Zinedine Zidane.
The situation has also changed with the arrival of Theo Zwanziger in Germany as federation chair. Zwanziger held that the discriminatory approach of the federation was fairly dangerous for Germany. In addition, he believed that soccer was a great chance for minorities and immigrants to integrate with society. The rise of Turkish players like Özil is attributable to the efforts by Zwanziger.
Le Pen, in response to Zidane’s success in soccer, questioned the “Frenchness” of the French national team that went on to win the World Cup in 2006. The paper said there were too many “foreign” players on the team. For Le Pen, Zidane was not French; likewise, to the neo-Nazis, Özil is not German.
Soccer meets politics
A closer look at why Özil was the target in these campaigns sheds light on the source and goals of racist campaigns. Özil is not the only “immigrant” player on the team. The first thing that you notice is that Özil holds a special position within the squad. Just like Zidane, he attracts attention with his creativity and aesthetics in his play. This makes him visible on the team and attracts the attention of viewers. For this reason, the far-right movement, which is obsessed with a pure race, wants to make Özil the focal point of discrimination. They use his transfer from Bremen to Madrid to spread their propaganda. This point where soccer meets politics is important in two respects.
From a soccer perspective, universalized soccer does not pose any danger because it has overcome such racist sentiments. Özil is a Turkish or Spanish player, just like he is German as well. Reducing him to merely a player with a national squad affiliation is not possible for Turkish or Spanish viewers and fans. For this reason, there is no need to be worried from a soccer perspective.
From a political viewpoint, Özil plays a great role for Turks in Germany and immigrants in this country, as well as for Germany. Through his success on the national squad, Özil has changed the flawed perception of Turks. In this way, he made the appearance of Turks in Germany a reality and a fact. Özil also proved that the approximately 3 million Turks are part of Germany and its success in soccer. If Turkey views Özil this way and draws attention to his importance to millions of young people in Germany, it will stand up against the racist movements and acts and further ensure that millions of young people are exposed to universal human and sports values. If lovers of soccer in Turkey praise Özil and his mission, they would give the proper political message.
*Ali Yurttagül is a political advisor for the Greens in the European Parliament.