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Soccer, International Politics, and ISIS

Deniz Naki went from being a solid Bundesliga player to a soccer refugee after the latest case of geopolitics crossing over into sports.
November 5, 2014, 2:15pm

Deniz Naki, a 25-year-old German-Turkish soccer player who represented Germany's youth teams more than 29 times, has never been shy about politics. He's spent most of his career at St. Pauli, Hamburg's famously left-wing soccer club. On the top of his left hand, he has a tattoo of Che Guevera. He showed it off in September, posting a Facebook photo of the tattoo with this accompanying quote from the Argentinian revolutionary: "There is only one thing greater than the love of liberty: the hatred of he who takes it away."

Last weekend, somebody took it away. Three people, actually.

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Since 2013, Naki, an ethnic Kurd whose family immigrated to Germany from the Turkish province of Tunceli**,** has played for Gençlerbirliği Ankara, of Turkey's Super League. On Sunday, he was out for a bite to eat when three men attacked him. Naki wasn't hurt badly—a black eye and some scuffed knuckles—but the beating came with a warning: it'll be worse next time. Naki, no longer safe in Turkey, immediately terminated his contract with Gençlerbirliği and returned to Germany.

According to a post on Naki's Facebook page, his attackers told him they didn't need "people like him" in Turkey. By "him," they meant people of Alevitisch-Kurdish origin. (The Kurdish people are a stateless ethnic minority native to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.) What's more, they were angry over Naki's public support of the Kurdish fight against ISIS in the cities of Sinjar and Kobanê.

In August, ISIS defeated Kurdish fighters and took over Sinjar, an Iraqi city of about 90,000 people, and the surrounding area. The incident made international news. The plight of the hundreds of thousands of Yazidis—members of a minority religious sect—who fled into the Sinjar mountains served as the catalyst for the US military intervention in the region. Kobanê, a Kurdish town in the north of Syria, has been under siege from ISIS since mid-September.

Soccer, "the world's game," is often entangled with politics, but the rise of ISIS, and the surreal, unexpected ways it has influenced the sport, is unique. This is especially true in Germany, where there are some three million people of Turkish origin, in addition to other minority groups from the Middle East. German society has long struggled with questions over how to best integrate its growing immigrant communities and xenophobic fears that the country's Muslim population is being radicalized.

Just last week, soccer hooligans and neo-Nazis came together in Cologne for a violent protest against supposed Muslim extremism. More protests are planned. In 2013, Burak Karan—another soccer pro who represented Germany as a youth player, alongside Sami Khedira, Dennis Aogo, and Kevin-Prince Boateng—died fighting in Syria. It's not entirely clear for whom Karan was fighting—the Syrian conflict includes numerous factions—but he was apparently killed by supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Naki's future is still unclear. Now a free agent, he should not be short of options. He won the 2008 U-19 European Championship with Germany, and although he never made it as an elite player, before moving to Turkey, he was in the midst of a solid career bouncing between the First and Second Bundesligas.

"But first I need to go home to my family in Düren and clear my head," he told Germany's BILD tabloid earlier this week.

"My father, who is very worried, told me to get on a plane and come home immediately."