You may or may not be aware of the sensational story surrounding the German football federation (DFB) and one of Germany’s most high profile players Mesut Özil. Last week, (Monday 23rd July), Özil announced that he would no longer put himself forward for selection for the German national team after an experience that, in his words, left him feeling ‘unwanted’ and racially discriminated against; accusations that were strenuously and immediately denied by the DFB.
Özil, of Turkish heritage but German-born, has represented the full national team since 2009, winning the last of his 92 caps at the recent 2018 World Cup in Russia. The dramatic decision that he has made stems from an event preceding the World Cup this summer, where he posed for a photograph with controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during Erdoğan’s visit to the UK in May. Erdoğan has been accused by critics for his authoritarian rule and hard-handed crack down on opponents and dissenting voices.
Özil’s decision to meet with President Erdoğan in London, at a charitable educational event, drew criticism from ranks within the DFB and many sections of the German media. Following the meeting, the DFB asked Özil to cut short his holiday and meet to explain his actions, also claiming that ‘football and the DFB defend values which are not sufficiently respected by Mr Erdoğan.’ Özil , subsequently, felt he was the target of unnecessary criticism and as a result, felt it necessary to release a statement outlining his reasons for meeting the Turkish President. Refusing an opportunity to meet the President of his parent’s country would be seen, by Özil, to be disrespectful to his family and his heritage. Özil waited until after the conclusion of the World Cup to release a statement and convey his disappointment at having his character and identity called into question. In presenting a principled statement conveying his own values, Özil has received a lot of support from individuals, charitable partners, and sponsors alike, whereas the DFB have come in for criticism for their own statement that appears to call Özil’s character into question. Such a retaliatory stance appears to have damaged relations with a number of charitable partners.
The events of last week presented a stand-off between the principled and personal value-led decision of the individual conflicting with the supposed professional values of the team (in this case the DFB). Özil protested to his 23.1million followers on Twitter that he is just ‘a football player, and not a politician’. To Özil, his meeting with Erdoğan was his way of ‘respecting the highest office of [his] family’s country’ and was not intended to ‘be political’; indeed, it was entirely personal. In criticising his decision to meet Erdoğan, the DFB have called Özil’s heritage, and ultimately his good character into question, unfairly and unjustly in his eyes. Özil is proud of his heritage, and suggests that his family has brought him up to be aware of his ancestry and ‘family traditions’, including respecting the office of President, and presumably standing up for oneself when feeling threatened.
As a global superstar, with a huge following online and offline, Özil is a role model to millions, and his actions, whether he likes it or not, are scrutinised to a greater degree and intensity than us mere mortals. His personal values have ultimately conflicted with the professional values of the DFB and those that the DFB expect players in the German national team to show. The DFB statement condemning Özil’s meeting with Erdoğan has tried to take a moral high ground and claim ownership of the values that represent the whole of football. In doing so, the DFB are suggesting that football is bigger than any one player, or any one nation, and that the values of football are one and the same around the globe. That said, the DFB statement does not specifically set out what those values are.
The concept of values, or virtues in the language of the Jubilee Centre, being global or universal, or contextual and local is one what will be debated at the forthcoming 7th annual conference of the Jubilee Centre in January 2019. Is there one set of shared values to which we all, or at least all of football can subscribe, or are values intensely personal and unique to each individual? The work of the Jubilee Centre has sought to explore this through the lens of professional education, with current work looking to reanalyse participant responses to the values that they hold important to them personally, and those that they feel are important in becoming a ‘good’ professional, across a range of professions. Such a high profile case gives cause for exploring the research further, perhaps with the values dear to professional sportsmen and women.
 ‘German Footballer Mesut Ozil quits national team, citing racism’, available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/07/22/football/mesut-ozil-retirement-racism-spt-intl/index.html (Accessed 26th July 2018).
Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategy and Integration, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
Kabir Ganguly, Partnership and Development Manager, Birmingham Digital