x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ozil's choice is Germany's gain and Turkey's loss

The playmaker is one of several players who have had the option to play for the country of their birth or that of their parents.

Mesut Ozil faced a crescendo of boos from the large Turkish contingent in the crowd every time he touched the ball in Germany’s 3-0 win over Turkey on Friday. Robert Michael / AFP
Mesut Ozil faced a crescendo of boos from the large Turkish contingent in the crowd every time he touched the ball in Germany’s 3-0 win over Turkey on Friday. Robert Michael / AFP

Mesut Ozil had come up with a quotable catchphrase, one he imagined would keep everybody happy ahead of Friday's meeting between Germany, the country he represents, and Turkey, where his family are from. "I have the technique of a Turkish player," Ozil, who speaks very quietly, told a press conference, "and the discipline of a German player." He had played for junior German teams throughout his youth, he added, was born and grew up in Germany, so that was always the nation he was going to represent.

The Group A Euro 2012 qualifying match in Berlin, which the home team won 3-0, was always set to highlight the complexities of Germany's relationship with Turkey, a coexistence centred on the large Turkish diaspora there, mainly made up of the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of migrant workers. Most estimates had more Turkish supporters than German fans in the Olympic Stadium. No great surprise: Ozil is one of an estimated 3.5 million people of Turkish origin who call Germany their home.

So many are young, and so enthusiastic is their following for football that the Turkish Football Federation set up an office in Cologne to monitor potential players in the German-Turk community, and make them aware that they could choose to play for Turkey. Several have, notably Yildiray Basturk, who helped Bayer Leverkusen reach the 2002 Champions League final, and, more recently, Bayern Munich's Hamit Altintop.

Just as Ozil was celebrating the twin benefits of his different roots in the game, Altintop was, ahead of the Berlin game, providing a different perspective. Like Ozil, he grew up in the Ruhr region; unlike Ozil he chose to pursue his international career as a Turk. "I respect Ozil's choice, but I don't support it," Altintop told reporters. "I also owe a lot to Germany, but Turkey is my country. I am Turkish. But the fact is that if you are a German footballer you have more value on the market.

"If he opted for Turkey he would not have gone to the last World Cup [Turkey failed to qualify], and he would not have moved to Real Madrid if he had chosen to play for Turkey." Ozil's reputation soared during the summer in South Africa, and his performances there for Germany attracted more attention from the likes of Real than had his domestic displays for Werder Bremen, whom Ozil left in July to move to the Spanish capital.

Altintop's point is that patriotism and pragmatism both have a bearing in these cases. Ozil's talent is the same whether he displays it in the white jersey of Germany or with a crescent and star on his chest, but his chances of playing on the big stages every two summers are increased by opting to play for Germany. Which was the point made at the end of last month by another young footballer who has lately excited Bundesliga crowds.

His name is Lewis Holtby, he plays for table-topping Mainz, and captains the German Under 21 team. Holtby's father is an Englishman, whom the British army posted in Germany before Lewis was born. Holtby junior, raised and educated in Germany, also has a choice of which country he might represent as a senior. With attention focussed on him because of Mainz's success, he has now committed himself to Germany, the land of his birth. He explained that, with Germany, there seemed a greater likelihood of winning major international prizes than with England.

Evidently. Germany have finished in the top three at the last three World Cups, and never has the national team been so eager to celebrate the diversity of the players. Maria Boehmer, the German government commissioner for migration and integration, said: "Joachim Loew's team is a true reflection of Germany and of our younger generation. Football drives the process of integration." She continued: "The fact is that Mesut Ozil was born in Germany and said 'yes' to the German national team. That's not something that can be taken for granted with a young man of Turkish origin. That shows he had the feeling, 'I was born here, I grew up here and I feel welcome here'. I remember the day the head of the German federation rang me to say: 'Ozil is going to play for us'. I was thrilled but I also wondered what the Turkish newspapers would do. In fact, they supported his decision."

They may have done then, but the boos that serenaded Ozil from Turkish fans with his every touch of the ball in Berlin suggested animosity exists. Ozil scored Germany's second goal, in between strikes from the Polish-born Miroslav Klose, and the next morning Bild-Zeitung, Germany's biggest-selling newspaper, cooed 'Our Ozil' in a front-page headline. In the decisions taken by dual-nationals, there are losers.

Turkey could use a player of Ozil's skill. Altintop's point that Ozil made a commercially beneficial choice could apply widely. For more than a decade the French national team have capped dozens of players who could have chosen to represent the African countries they, their parents or grandparents were born in, and the decision to commit to France - rather than a country than might be involved every other January, mid-season, in the African Cup of Nations - has in many cases been encouraged by their clubs.

Fifa rules have altered since 2002, to allow players to switch allegiance even if they have won U21 caps for a country, partly because they were aware of such pressures being placed on young men, and partly to acknowledge that in the modern world, with its free-trade agreements, cheaper air travel and ease of movement, there are millions of dual-nationals. Hence these recent quirks: Steve Mandanda plays in goal for France; Parfait, his younger brother, has represented the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were both born. Jerome Boateng played for Germany at the 2010 World Cup against a Ghana side featuring his half-brother, Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Lito Vidigal played for Angola in the period his brother, Luis Vidigal, played for Portugal. A very famous football name might shortly be joining the list of divided families. Enzo Zidane, the 15-year-old son of Zinedine Zidane, has Algerian grandparents, a French father and a Spanish mother. He lives in Madrid, where Zinedine finished his club career, and there he is showing sufficient talent to be earmarked by the Spanish Football Federation as a future superstar.

In five years or so, he may be obliged to choose between following his father, the man who won France a World Cup in 1998, or representing the current world champions. 

sports@thenational.ae