For any professional soccer player, being selected for the national soccer team is a moment of honor and pride. The opportunity to wear the national jersey, worn by their childhood heroes, comes along with a tremendous amount of responsibility. During any major tournament, be it the European Championships or the World Cup, each player carries the weight of their nation’s hope and aspirations on their shoulders. While players manage to gain the status of ‘national heroes’ during success, failure to meet expectations arrives with significant criticism from citizens and media alike. In the past and present, such harsh judgment has resulted in many footballers to quit international soccer, while still at the peak of their career.
We inhabit a digitally interconnected world, where the internet plays a major role in instantly spreading information around the world. When France won the 2018 World Cup, social media websites were ablaze with adulations surrounding the multi-culturalism of the French team. The flip side of the coin is, that harsh criticism also spreads at an equal rate, and the victims usually find them hard to avoid.
As the previous champions, Germany, was eliminated in the group stages, social media was quick to pick a scapegoat in the likes of its star midfielder, Mesut Özil. Although Özil was born and brought up in Germany, and been an integral part of Die Mannschaft’s recent success, his ancestors are of Turkish heritage. The media questioned his commitment by circulating pictures of him meeting the Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan in the locker room of his club, Arsenal FC. A number of German citizens succumbed to racism and blatant discrimination over the picture, berating him of being Turkish and disrespecting the German shirt. As a result of such hatred and abuse, Özil, only 29, quit the German national team.
After a decent performance in the 2018 World Cup, two Iranian players also decided to quit the national team as a result of being targeted online by angry fans. Sardar Azmun, Iran’s top scorer in the World Cup qualifiers, reported that the plethora of insults that he received deteriorated his mother’s fragile health. At just 23 years of age, he decided to retire from international soccer in order to protect his mother.
In the past, many players have also quit international soccer for numerous other reasons. Gerd Mueller, the German striker, retired at 28 after winning the 1974 World Cup, as a statement against sexism when wives of the national team weren’t allowed to attend the winner’s banquet. Another German player, Philip Lahm, decided to retire on a high after winning the 2014 World Cup, while only 31.
Maybe the decision to quit international soccer after achieving success isn’t such a bad idea, as a failure in the next tournament can put their entire international reputation at stake. The critical media, which always looks for a scapegoat to blame poor performances on, needs to accept defeat as a part of the game. Not meeting expectations at major tournaments should not force brilliant players to quit the game as a result of harsh criticism. There is no place for racism in today’s world, and it definitely shouldn’t be used as a medium to target players of different ancestry. As Özil put it, “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose”. Questioning a player’s commitment towards the national jersey adds an extra burden on their shoulder, and might result in the player denouncing the shirt forever.