Mesut Ozil: How the politicised playmaker is already causing a stir in Turkey
“I have two hearts. One German and one Turkish,” footballer Mesut Ozil said in 2018, when he announced he had ended his international career with the German national team.
After agreeing to join Turkish football club Fenerbahce after almost eight years at Arsenal, it appears one of those hearts is now beating loudest.
Since the rumours of Ozil's move to Turkey were confirmed, football fans and politicians have made the German-born midfielder's arrival “home” a sporting and political spectacle.
Istanbul's Fenerbahce is one of the biggest clubs in Turkish and European football. Its fanbase includes both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and its announcement on Twitter of Ozil’s transfer created a huge buzz in Turkey, gaining nearly 300,000 likes.
A record 312,000 people tracked his flight from London to Turkey to complete the deal, and Fenerbahce, which is facing debts of around $370m, also announced that its stock price had jumped by seven percent in one day.
Fenerbahce’s sporting director Emre Belozoglu described the transfer as “a beneficial process” for both parties that will hopefully see the club “win great trophies.”
But the midfielder's politically charged past has left people speculating on his impact off the pitch as well.
Whilst being one of the most exciting January transfers, and one of Fenerbahce's biggest signings since Nicolas Anelka in 2005, Ozil's move has been treated as a political event thanks in part to his history with Erdogan.
The mix of playmaker and politics came to a head when Ozil was pictured with the Turkish president at a hotel in London in May 2018, provoking a backlash in Germany, where questions were raised over his loyalties.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” was the enduring message of Ozil’s subsequent statement, also announcing his retirement from international duty.
With 92 caps, 23 goals and a World Cup under his belt, Ozil had a profound effect on the German national team. Yet his friendship with Erdogan, who was best man at his wedding in 2019, appeared to tarnish those achievements for many fans in Germany.
While Fenerbahce may not have a clear political affiliation, Erdogan and the club also share history. When Erdogan’s AK Party was elected in 2002, Fenerbahce fans showed their satisfaction with the result by erecting a banner that read, “Turkey deserves a prime minister affiliated with Fenerbahce”.
In April 2007, during an official visit to Syria, Erdogan took the Yellow Canaries with him to play against Syria's al-Ittihad at the opening of the Aleppo Olympic Stadium.
Allegedly, Fenerbahce has Erdogan to thank for Ozil's signature.
According to local reports, Ozil had been close to accepting an offer from US club DC United, but was convinced during a telephone conversation with Erodgan that he would be "happy" playing "football in your country”.
It's a happiness that has since been shared by thousands in the country, including through the messages of support from the country's politicians.
After presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin also tweeted "welcome home" to Ozil, "SiyasetBahce" (“Politicsbahce”) began trending online. Some on social media have suggested a political agenda behind the move, and sparked a wider debate around the alleged mixing of politics and football.
'Domestic and national'
Meanwhile, Cavusoglu, who was born in Istanbul's Fenerbahce neighbourhood, joked with his German counterpart Heiko Maas during a meeting on Monday: “I hope this time you won’t object to him meeting with Erdogan."
Some Turkish critics have waded in to the transfer news by questioning whether Ozil was Turkish enough to be received in such a way, as he was born and raised abroad.
Columnist Fatih Altayli argued that no one should see Ozil as someone who is “domestic and national", a phrase popularly used in Turkey to highlight the importance of being born and raised in the country.
Despite Ozil being a Turkish citizen, the midfielder surrendered his Turkish passport at the country's consulate in 2007 in order to play for Germany's national football team, due to German law not permitting dual citizenship.
Officials at the consulate made their feelings known by initially refusing to help him, later calling him a "traitor" for abandoning his supposed homeland.
Altayli, a cautious critic of the Turkish government and avid fan of Fenerbahce's rival Galatasaray, also questioned whether the player was transferred to Turkey by Fenerbahce or a “political party”, and criticised how “the government is trying to create a local and national hero from Mesut Ozil”.
Stirring social media
Ozil is no stranger to criticism, or to his social media posts attracting the ire of officials.
He has used his platform to speak out against Islamophobia, criticise the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority by Chinese authorities, comment on the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and discuss religion and culture.
Whilst most of his religious posts carry simple Islamic messaging, one shared on 15 January accompanied with a quote from Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a Muslim scholar usually linked to Salafist circles, was not received well by some in Turkey.
Hilmi Demir, a professor at Turkey's Economic Policy Research Foundation, commented at the time: "I wish Mesut Ozil, as he chose an Ottoman-Turkish mosque as his background, had chosen a scholar suitable with that background, rather than a qoute from the Ibn Taymiyya scholar."
Ozil's posts on Turkish culture have led to accusations that he is a neo-Ottoman apologist.
When asked what his favourite TV show was during his popular #AskMesut question and answer session with his 25.9m Twitter followers, Ozil listed three Turkish shows that are considered by some to be propaganda tools for Erdogan’s government.
He also created a buzz on Instagram earlier this month, when he uploaded a picture of his home where Ottoman-style artworks can be seen in the background and Ottoman Chic, a book by Istanbul-born interior designer Serdar Gulgun, is on his coffee table.
Ozil’s time at Arsenal came to a sour end. The club chose to distance themsleves from his "political" remarks in solidarity with the Uighurs, which provoked ferocious criticism in China, and underwhelming performances on the pitch and a refusal to take a pay cut in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic saw him totally frozen out of the squad.
He now joins a club that is no stranger to scandals itself.
Fenerbahce was embroiled in a match-fixing scandal in 2011 after becoming league champions ahead of Trabzonspor. Dozens of officials, including Aziz Yildirim, Fenerbahce's president between from 1998 to 2018, were arrested, and several players, managers and agents were also charged in the investigation.
The club also received a two-season ban from the Champions League from governing body UEFA.
However in 2016, an Istanbul prosecutor's indictment claimed the 2011 charges against Yildirim and others were part of "a plot" created by supporters of Fetullah Gulen, who are accused of being behind the 2016 coup attempt.
In November 2020, Yildirim, who was jailed in 2012 for more than a year, and the other defendants, were acquitted after an investigation found that the judges, prosecutors and police officers involved in the case were part of a conspiracy serving the Gulentists' interests against Fenerbahce and other football clubs.
During his trial, Yıldirim openly accused "elements" of the Gulenists and Erdogan's AKP alike of trying “to seize [control of] Turkish football by influencing the state's legislative, executive and judiciary bodies to punish Fenerbahce's Kemalist stance”.
According to some Turkish commentators, AKP members were appointed to Fenerbahce's board to help the ruling party extend its reach to the club’s traditional support for Kemalist parties like the opposition CHP.