Ambassadors against their will? Footballers in contact with politicians
I am sitting on the train from Dortmund to Paris, on the way to a colloquium in Sciences Po, at the invitation of the historian Paul Dietschy. Diagonally across from me, four elderly ladies and gentlemen who exchanged at first very lively about their grandchildren. By looking at the many photos and videos and the constant jerking in the train, the people were visibly exhausted, which led to a long break in their conversation. They yawned and looked out the window.
Suddenly, one of them held up a newspaper and said with full vigour, ‘You’ve probably already noticed that! When I saw the picture on the cover this morning, I was so angry about it! It just cannot be true! How stupid are they?!’. On the title page, I saw my brother Ilkay and Mesut Özil, handing over the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a jersey of their club teams Manchester City and Arsenal London. After the last matches of the English Premier League and before the announcement of the German national team squad for the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the two German internationals met with the Turkish President in London. This photo triggered a heated debate in Germany. The players were accused of being instrumentalised for election campaign purposes – one month before the presidential elections in Turkey on June 24. The political relations between the two countries are currently tense and Turkish election campaigns in Germany are prohibited.
It is interesting what effect a photo of a footballer with one (or more) foreign presidents can have on the perception of so many people. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom included a reception by this year’s Premier League winner Manchester City. Back then, the Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero took a selfie with President Xi Jinping and then British Prime Minister David Cameron. This photo also received a lot of attention. However, what differed fundamentally from the current polemics about Gündogan and Özil was the perception, reception and reaction of the media and the population. Many jokes were made about the British Prime Minister because he was accused of ‘photo-bombing’ the selfie. As for President Xi Jinping, there was a discussion about why he agreed to this selfie, as it is speculated that he is a fan of the local rival Manchester United. Sergio Aguero had not received any significant criticism. He was not accused of consolidating the legitimacy of an autocratic system or leader through this photo. He was not accused of acting morally wrong since the Leninist party dictatorship in China does not adequately represent liberal-democratic values. He was also not attacked for failing to live up to his responsibility as a role model for millions of children and adolescents, etc.
Even if both situations contain the same action – footballers take photos with an autocratic leader – both scenarios are perceived very differently. Why?
The reason for this is that in the current case profound national identification patterns and forms of representation are affected, which are based on feelings of belonging, perceived singularity and national pride, and not in the other case.
The context is crucial. The topic of identification and representation ignites strong emotional desires and aversions. The formation of identities or the question of political representation played no role in the Aguero example. He never had to consider whether he plays for the Argentine or the Chinese national team, nor does he have Chinese citizenship or any other family relationship with the country.
It is completely different with the Gündogan and Özil example. Both were born in Germany, went to school there and became professional footballers there. Their parents and grandparents emigrated from Turkey to Germany. The two had to choose between the two national teams, and they have decided to play for the German national team. The two footballers have become typical examples of a successful ‘integration’ into German society through their sporting achievements, attracting much attention. Interestingly, Turkish international Cenk Tosun, who also participated in the meeting with Erdogan, was mentioned in media reports only marginally. He also grew up in Germany and played for German national youth teams, but he eventually chose the Turkish national team. But there was hardly anyone who was angry about him.
The meeting of the two German national team players with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not so sensitive and controversial because footballers have been photographed with an authoritarian political leader who does not respect a number of liberal-democratic values and beliefs, but because the players are being accused of ‘high treason’. The two players have decided to play for the German national team, so how come they still identify with Turkey? How can it be that someone who is considered a model citizen for successful integration in Germany, hands over the Turkish President a jersey with the personal signature: ‘For MY President’?
In the People’s Republic of China, it would probably have come to similar emotional reactions, if the former basketball star Yao Ming would hand over Tsai Ing-Wen, the President of Taiwan, a basketball shirt with the words ‘For MY President’ (or maybe not, because Chinese regulators would probably censor this photo).
The fact is that people have many identities and loyalties to different groups. Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote in his book ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’ that we humans understand us as members of a variety of groups that we all belong to (e.g. nationality, place of residence, geographical origin, gender, sexual orientation, class, political views, occupation, work, eating habits, sporting interests, tastes in music, social engagement, etc.). Each of these collectives gives a person a specific identity. It is therefore wrong to reduce a person to a singular affiliation. The statement of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, ‘Home also exists in the plural’ is therefore accurate.
In addition, identities and identification patterns are not static, but contextual and in relation to the situation very flexible and adaptable. It therefore possible that the two German national players felt more attached to Turkey at the meeting with the Turkish President. This may also be evident in the outward appearance of Gündogan (‘Turkish moustache’). This phenomenon is called ‘self-Turkified’ by the German ethnologist Nina Szogs. In turn, it is possible that the players in the dress of the German national team (or in the jersey of their club team) feel more connected with Germany. The one does not exclude the other.
The ethnologist Nina Szogs, just mentioned above, has in recent years been investigating the practices and narratives of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe fans in Vienna, the group often referred to as citizens ‘with Turkish migration background’. Many results of this study can also be applied to the German context. She found out that being a fan of a Turkish football club is for these people a strategy to maintain ‘kinship’ and belonging to a constructed Turkish community, which implies a cross-generational continuity. Her research suggests that the abolition of dual citizenship would probably not result in people ‘with Turkish migration background’ identifying exclusively with Germany.
Still, wasn’t the decision of the two German internationals to meet with Erdogan before the Turkish presidential elections, not a ‘stupid’ idea? Some media reports called the footballers ‘stupid’ and ‘out of touch with reality’.
First of all, there is no universal definition of intelligence (or stupidity). But let’s suppose stupidity implies a lack of understanding of the consequences of an action: in that sense, this meeting was indeed ‘stupid’. The cliché of the not so bright footballer should still not be served – although some media representatives have reflexively done this (‘legs instead of a brain’). At the beginning of my brother’s football career, I lived with him in Nuremberg and witnessed how he has done his Abitur (A-levels), beside the daily professional football business. Had he taken an academic career path, he would probably also have been very successful.
The question of responsibility for this ‘stupidity’ should be further differentiated. The players were not aware of the consequences of this meeting because they are not particularly interested in politics. Why then meet with Erdogan? In fact, the organisers and initiators of this meeting were not Ilkay Gündogan or Mesut Özil, but a team of agents and consultants who should have been aware of the consequences of this meeting. If not, they are simply not good advisors. Preemptive unreflected obedience is always harmful. Too often the agents’ ideational and financial interests are overriding those of the players, but as long as the footballers are fooled to focus ONLY on football, we might see such unfortunate situations even more often.
As the current incident shows, national team players with a migration background are evidently perceived as ‘ambassadors’ who are credited with responsibility beyond their performance on the pitch. On the one hand, this may be disproportionate and difficult for the individual, but on the other hand, it also makes a not inconsiderable contribution to the positive connotation of diversity and plural identities. The results of an international research project called FREE (Football Research in Enlarged Europe) show, a vast majority of people in Germany, France, or the UK (between 75 and 80%) consider that these footballers ‘make an important contribution to social integration’ in their countries. These are significant results, far more reliable than occasionally high-boiling emotions in the social networks or comment columns of the daily newspapers.
Footballers benefit in many ways from the incredible media reach. Accordingly, they should also be aware that they have a social and political responsibility, which they have not sought, but they cannot escape.