When Mesut Ozil tendered his resignation from the German National Team in 2018, citing racial abuse and discrimination, he attracted worldwide criticism and acclaim in equal measure. Ozil’s decision, conveyed in an impassioned statement on his social media pages, was prompted by the Germany Football Association’s comments on a photo of Ozil alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ozil, whose parents are of Turkish origin, chose to play for Germany – the 2014 World Cup Champions – but felt hard-done-by when Reinhard Grindel, president of the Germany Football Association made him a scapegoat during Germany’s dismal performance in the 2018 World Cup. To Ozil, the backlash directed his way had overt racist undertones.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win,” Ozil said. “But I am an immigrant when we lose.”
Even though Ozil argued that posing for the photo was not a measure of his politics – Erdogan is considered an authoritarian by critics both at home and abroad – Ozil’s decision to resign sparked a discourse within the German and Turkish political elite. In calling out the German federation, Ozil did what few sportsmen dare to do – speak truth to power – with most opting to self-censor in a bid to avoid being dropped from their playing clubs or national teams.
Of late, AC Milan talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been on record criticising American basketball still-playing legend Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers for commenting about former president Donald Trump’s unorthodoxy.
“Do what you are good at. I play football because I am the best at it,” Ibrahimovic told Discovery+, a video streaming service in Sweden. “If I were a politician, I’d have gone into politics.”
Surprisingly or not, Ibrahimovic’s views are largely the norm rather than the exception in the sports world.
Closer home, Ugandan midfielder Khalid Aucho was dramatically dropped from his country’s national team in March 2021. The Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) alleged that Aucho, who plays for Egyptian side Misr Lel Makkasa, was dropped due to indiscipline, explaining that Aucho did not report to camp as soon as he was required to. According to the federation, it availed a vehicle to pick Aucho from the airport when he arrived from Egypt, as is the norm. But FUFA claims Aucho refused to board the car. It was under these circumstances that Aucho presumably lost his spot on the national team.
But not everyone was buying FUFA’s narrative.
First among those to dispute FUFA version of events was Bobi Wine, the Ugandan political apostate who put a spoke in the federation’s wheel through a now-deleted Facebook post where he claimed that Aucho, a regular in the Uganda Cranes squad, was dropped because of being his supporter.
“It has come to my attention that Aucho was dropped from Uganda Cranes because of indiscipline,” Bobi Wine’s statement read. “But as you can see on Aucho’s previous Facebook posts, there is more than meets the eye because the player has been posting against injustice.”
Aucho, too, denied FUFA’s allegations, explaining that he was in communication with the federation the entire time he was out of camp for reasons known to FUFA. However, Aucho could not substantiate Bobi Wine’s assertions.
“I do not know anything about politics,” Aucho said. “For me, I can only comment on football issues.”
Perhaps Aucho, who has so far issued a public statement apologising to Ugandans for the “mistakes that led to my dismissal from Uganda Cranes”, was oblivious to the extent of how posting on his Facebook page in support of Bobi Wine would affect his career. But before this, in 2011, another Uganda Cranes favourite, David Obua, was unequivocal in his remarks, saying he was dropped from the national team because he refused to meet Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni.
“I wanted to ask Mzee (referring to President Museveni) questions regarding our bonuses,” Obua told Uganda’s The Independent Magazine. “But when they told me I couldn’t ask questions, I told the captain there was no reason for me to attend the meeting.”
Here at home, Kenyan athletes rarely make headlines for their activistic pursuits, partly because of victimization. In 2007, Dorcas Ndasaba was initially left out of Kenya’s volleyball team to the World Cup because she asked the Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) to increase players’ allowances. After uproar from fans, KVF reinstated Ndasaba on the team. Similarly, in 2019, seasoned Harambee Starlets players such as Wendy Achieng and Cherish Avila were allegedly dropped from the national team after they revealed on The Score radio show that the federation hadn’t paid players their dues in full.
However, former Harambee Stars player Crispin Olando opines that the issue isn’t a sports problem since the silence of athletes doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To Olando, who is now based in the US, the self-censorship by African players is a result of the limited freedom of speech environments outside of sports.
“As compared to Americans who are protected by freedom of speech, there is no such thing in Africa,” Olando said. “So it’s tough for African players to get involved in politics.”
However, Colin Kaepernick’s account tells a different tale.
A quarterback who played for the San Francisco 49ers for six seasons, Kaepernick was blackballed from the National Football League (NFL) for going against the practice of standing up when the Star-Spangled Banner was played, choosing to kneel down instead. Kaepernick’s explanation was that he took the knee because “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick’s exploits invited bad press and slander from nationalists who claimed his gesture was insubordinate to the soldiers who died for the American flag. Relentless, Kaepernick continued to kneel in every game, a stance which resulted in none of the NFL teams signing him up.
But despite being sidelined by the NFL, Kaepernick’s activism spurred a domino effect in elite competitions such as the English Premier League (EPL) which had previously campaigned against racism. The EPL moved to integrate the taking of a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign, allowing players and officials to kneel before kick-off.
In arguably the most prominent forum of Kenya football fans on Facebook, KPL (Kenya Premier League) Chat, it is common for users to debate whether a footballer is justified in asking for unpaid dues. While such players are dubbed “trade unionists” by castigatory fans, a faction empathises with them.
That it is tough for players in Kenya to speak because of such convictions.
“Even though this happens worldwide, as in Ozil’s case, it is extremely hard for Kenyan athletes,” Whyvonne Isuza, a Wazito FC player, opines. “You are automatically dubbed an enemy against the management once you decide to speak up.”
What should not be overlooked is how powerful the sports milieu is. As much as there is discourse that sportspeople should hold their tongues on matters that may drain their coffers, their position in society does not accord them the luxury of being fence-sitters.