When Ricardo Kishna goes to dinner with close friend Anwar El Ghazi at the end of October, he still thinks that things will work out between him and his club FSV Mainz 05. El Ghazi was suspended at that time because he shared a pro-Palestinian message on Instagram with the controversial slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. That text questions the right to exist of the state of Israel and is a show of support for Hamas, Mainz believes, something the club will not tolerate.
But El Ghazi has made it clear to the board in several conversations that he did not mean it that way. The Dutch footballer ‘with Moroccan roots’, as the German press usually describes him, also deleted the message from Instagram.
Instead, he stated online that his previous statements had been misunderstood and that he condemned “the murders of all innocent victims in Palestine and Israel.” “He just wanted to let us know that he deeply sympathizes with the people in Gaza,” says Kishna. “That’s why he assumed he would join Mainz again soon.”
Now, two weeks later, Anwar El Ghazi (28) is unemployed and his reputation is in tatters, at least in Germany. Summarily dismissed by FSV Mainz, denounced in the German media and subject to a criminal investigation on suspicion of “disruption of public order by condoning crimes” and “incitement to hatred”. The German players’ union, his coach, teammates: no one has openly sided with El Ghazi.
The fact that it has escalated this way is not only due to the later deleted Instagram message. Things only finally went wrong in the aftermath, when the club stated that El Ghazi regretted his “contribution” and, as a player of the club, had committed himself to the club’s values, including a “special responsibility to the State of Israel and the Jewish people”. According to El Ghazi, that text was not coordinated with him and went too far for the footballer. He was against war and violence, discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, he reiterated on Instagram, but he had “no special responsibility towards any state.” He concluded his message with a call for an immediate end to “the killing in Gaza.”
Two days later, Mainz announced his resignation in a two-line press release. When asked for a response, director Christian Heidel says he does not want to say anything more about El Ghazi. “All this has (almost) nothing to do with football,” he texts. The player himself also remains silent. However, he wrote on Instagram that the loss of his income is nothing compared to “hell” in which innocent and vulnerable civilians in Gaza now live.
The rift between FSV Mainz and El Ghazi shows how sensitive criticism of Israel – implicit or explicit – is in Germany in general and at the club in particular. FSV Mainz was co-founded by a Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly threatened Israel’s security and existence since the Hamas attack on October 7, which killed at least 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers. Staatsräson mentioned: inextricably linked to the right to exist of post-war Germany. Several pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been banned, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently even called on residents with Arab or Palestinian roots to explicitly distance themselves from Hamas.
But the break also says a lot about El Ghazi. Outspoken political commitment is already quite rare among professional football players. The fact that a player more or less chooses to sacrifice his well-paid job and endanger his career is completely exceptional. Who is Anwar El Ghazi? And why is the Palestinian cause so valuable to him?
Mohammed El Ghazi did everything by hand. Carrying the bags of flour, kneading the dough and then cutting it. He still remembers his first day at work at the Hooimeijer rusk factory in Barendrecht: May 14, 1979. On that day he started as a dough maker and cutting machine, Anwar’s father says in the documentary. It’s our job (2007) by Jeroen van Bergeijk, about the first generation of Moroccan guest workers.
He grew up in northeastern Morocco, near Nador, in the Rif Mountains. Via Belgium he ended up in Barendrecht, near Rotterdam. He worked long hours, often working double shifts. Due to the tight labor market, labor migrants were desperately needed.
One problem was that El Ghazi was staying here illegally, he says in the film. He and his manager looked for a solution: how do they ensure the right papers? El Ghazi knew it. He knew a girl in Utrecht. “I go to her and ask her father to give me his daughter.” The young woman, Jamila, agreed.
Three daughters were born from that marriage – Naoual, Nabila and Yasmina – and years later a son: Anwar. They grew up in the old village center of the predominantly Christian Barendrecht. “Their parents were on top of it: that they did their homework, that they behaved well,” says Hans Onderwater (77) in his living room in Barendrecht. He has known the family for at least twenty years, as a teacher at Het Kompas primary school he had all four children in his class.
With father El Ghazi, he regularly visited the Essalam Mosque in South Rotterdam, ate at the family’s home, drove Anwar to the training sessions of professional club Sparta in his teenage years and attended the wedding of their eldest daughter. “Civilized people, very helpful,” says Onderwater. In the staff meeting he once said that he would like “a school full of El Ghazis.” “You couldn’t call it that crazy if Mr. and Mrs. El Ghazi came to help with chores.” The children are the same way, he says. “Although Anwar also sometimes kicked a window while playing football.”
As young Muslims at a Christian school, they had to adapt. “At the Christmas party in the church, Anwar was also a shepherd, so to speak.” And before the prayer, Onderwater made the agreement that Muslims could pray in their own way. “They just participated in that.”
He thinks El Ghazi is “a good boy, honest.” El Ghazi called himself a “mama’s boy” in an interview. In his youth he had no shortage of attention from his mother and sisters. Sister Yasmina said in 2014 in football magazine Hard Grass: “Anwar is very sensitive, he cares about people. He quickly feels sorry for someone, he can quickly find something sad.”
For a long time he himself did not believe that he could become a professional, although he started early: at the age of four at BVV Barendrecht. Football runs in the family: his father played in Morocco and made a name for himself there with his hard shot. When El Ghazi was eleven years old, Feyenoord picked him up. He had to quit there after two years, according to his own words because of his unprofessional attitude: he did not listen and did not always do his best.
When he went to Ajax after a period at Sparta, he was told in Barendrecht, where many fans of rival Feyenoord live. “I was called a Jew, just go to Amsterdam,” he said at FunX in 2018. “I was quite shocked by that. That was the first time I had to deal with criticism and people who had an opinion about me.”
Kapsalon and salads
In Amsterdam, El Ghazi changed quickly, as Ricardo Kishna saw, who is the same age and had already been playing in Ajax’s youth team for three years. Both were injured when El Ghazi arrived, and they had to recuperate together. “What struck me immediately is how quickly he adapted in terms of professionalism,” says Kishna. “His diet immediately went from zero to a hundred: from hair salon to all the salads on the table. He was constantly in the gym, always training at full speed.”
As up-and-coming wingers they were competitors, but Kishna and El Ghazi became best friends, feeling like they were on a mission together to reach the European top. They have a lot in common, says Kishna. Both come from very close families – Anwar takes his parents and sisters everywhere. Kishna further got to know El Ghazi as quiet, introverted, neat and sociable, but also as someone who “pays more attention than the average footballer to what the outside world thinks of him.” He forms an opinion and dares to express it. Sometimes he goes too far.
When he ended up on the bench under coach Peter Bosz in 2016, he sought confrontation during training. Bosz banished him to Jong Ajax. El Ghazi later expressed regret. He was “angry, disappointed and aggressive”, he said in an interview when he returned to the A-selection. “Sometimes I am full of emotion and do things that I don’t mean at all.”
“It really bothers him, especially what happens to those children there. Anwar also has a small one himself”
Gaza and MH17
El Ghazi does not only speak out about football. In the summer of 2014, just before he broke through at Ajax, journalist Mark van den Heuvel noticed that El Ghazi was “widely interested” during an interview for Hard Grass. Around a training camp in De Lutte, the two talked about the ambitions of the young footballer, but also about the attack on MH17, which had been shot down shortly before. And about Gaza. The desperate situation of the people there was close to El Ghazi’s heart.
Kishna recognizes that. They remained in close contact after their departure from Ajax, when they both moved abroad. El Ghazi often talks about Gaza and the fate of the Palestinians, Kishna notes. “He feels an enormous connection with the people there. I think that also has to do with his religion.”
Since the Hamas attack and the subsequent war in Gaza, Kishna talks about it with his friend almost every day, he says. “It really bothers him, especially what happens to those children there. Anwar also has a small one himself.”
When El Ghazi came under fire in Mainz for his statements on social media, he texted his former teacher Hans Onderwater, whom he still calls ‘master’. “All I want is for the war to stop!” wrote El Ghazi. Onderwater thinks that he “got carried away”, the former teacher now says, when he “used that slogan” (‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free‘) posted on Instagram.
The way he subsequently responded to Mainz’s statement and to the dismissal appears very well-considered. And it is, according to Kishna, who says his friend is doing relatively well. “He is of course disappointed that it turned out this way. But he is also proud that he has stood up for his principles. In his eyes, he did the right thing, that’s what matters to him.”