Sports, Meeting the Bad Guys

Once she was the richest woman in Xinjiang, having amassed a fortune trading commodities with neighboring Central Asian countries and owning Urumqi’s largest department store.

Officials would bring foreign visitors to meet her, as living refutation of Uighurs’ complaints that Chinese policies relegated them to second-class citizenship.

That’s how the Christian Science Monitor described the earlier life of Rebiya Kadeer, in summer 2009. Then, the article moved on to her later years in East Turkestan and China – her fall from grace, her arrest, and her term in jail during the early 2000s.

Her story came to my mind when Mesut Özil, a player for Arsenal and a German citizen, resigned from Germany’s “national team” on Sunday, i. e. from the German Football Association’s (DFB) top team that vies for the FIFA World Cups or at the UEFA European Championships every four years respectively.

Özil, approaching his 30th birthday this year, has been a star in Germany for most of the past decade. There have also been derogatory remarks about him in the past, and a right-wing politician called Özil a “plastic German” live on television, referring to the synthetic material covering German identity cards. But Özil’s career developed unobstructedly. So did his public image.

Özil was born as a Turkish citizen, in the German town of Gelsenkirchen. He took German citizenship in 2007, and if the few statements he publicly made are something to go by, he probably considers himself a citizen of the world.

Kadeer was reportedly on her way to meet a politician in Urumqi when she was arrested, in 1999. The politician was a bad guy – an American.

Özil met a politician at Arsenal in London earlier this year. The politician was a bad guy, too – the Turkish president.

Obviously, there are differences between the American bad guy and the Turkish bad guy. The American politician was a bad guy because he cared about human rights. The Turkish president is a bad guy because he gives a damn on human rights, and on the rule of law.

But this is where Özil’s fall from grace began. It’s in the nature of the sport that he was known way beyond the world of soccer, Germany’s number one sport. He was sold – by the DFB and by German politics – as a shining example of “integration”, the incorporation of migrants into German society.

That was weird, given that he had lived in Germany from day one of his life anyway, but propaganda doesn’t have to be accurate. It is meant to tie the nation together, rather than to inform it. And for about a decade, the message seemed to work for the cause of social cohesion.

Soccer doesn’t breed the most civil interaction, certainly not among the fan base. And it isn’t the best ground for decent standards on the level of business operations either. To demand that people who make millions from playing soccer should be “role models” is an excessive demand – no matter if they are made on foreigners or compatriots, migrants or Mayflower descendants (or whatever their German equivalents may be). If things go well, you won’t get into public-relations trouble. But it can easily happen. It is currently happening to the DFB president, Reinhard Grindel, too, because much of Özil’s criticism in his letter of resignation was targeted at him, and while the press is critical of the accusations in Özil’s letter of resignation, the DFB is criticized mercilessly – for “racism” by some, for chaotic management by many.

Özil’s preparedness to meet Turkish president Erdogan for a photo op was read as an endorsement for the campaigning politician by many in Germany, and probably by some Turkish voters, too. His explanation that it wasn’t meant to be an endorsement, but just a show of respect for the presidential office, didn’t convince the German public.

But why did he have to seek excuses at all? The world of sports isn’t about human rights – not even when it comes to safety standards. And did Jacques Rogge have to apologize for meeting Hu Jintao? Not really.

Did Lothar Matthäus have to explain why he had been sitting next to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán when the country’s political leader opened a soccer stadium? Neither.

Socializing with unpleasant political leaders, and making yourself useful (or making them useful to yourself, or both) is an important element of “professional sports” – if you  can’t put up with it, change it, or stop being a fan. But don’t beam your anger on a few guys in particular.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe it is a lesson about the dangers of propaganda. For most of the past decade, Özil fitted well into collective German ego-boosting. Now, sudden new fans use his image to agitate their audiences.

Don’t hold your breath for role models in sports. Once in a while, there may be some – maybe Muhammad Ali became one, in the course of many decades. But usually, some of a person’s action (or inaction) may be admirable, some other may be detestable.

Hundreds of sports officials, and thousands of cadres, have proven by their behavior that commercial sports isn’t doing embroidery.

That said, it isn’t writing essays, either.

4 Comments to “Sports, Meeting the Bad Guys”

  1. Muhammad Ali – most definitely. Include Usain Bolt.

    Point taken, if one includes all the pop icons and Hollywood A team types who’ve made well paid appearance at events hosted by Uzbek/Turkmenistan etc blood soaked authoritarians. I think we can now include Erdogan with the aforementioned.

    More to the point, the whole Arsenal squad incl Ozil should be given the boot. Lazy, overpaid and complacent. The most useless team in the EPL who deserve to be relegated.

    Like

  2. Haven’t watched football on tv for years, but I suppose every first-league player, good or bad, is overpaid.
    Usain Bolt a role model already? Isn’t that a bit early?

    Like

  3. JR. Usain Bolt has sensibly decided to pursue his football career in Oz.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-07/usain-bolt-to-train-with-central-coast-mariners/10085220

    Are you serious about the quality of internet in rural Germany? One of the world’s major economies!.

    Crikey, i live out in the piney woods at the bottom of a hill and in a supposed ‘black spot”, yet I have no trouble inflicting really loud youtube music on the neighbors.

    (And they thank me for it.)

    Like

  4. Are you serious about the quality of internet in rural Germany?

    Well, obviously, there are some hotspots in this fairytale forest, but not everywhere.

    Like

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