A dramatic announcement from one of Germany’s biggest football stars that he was quitting the national team after being treated with “racism and disrespect” set off political uproar in the country on Monday.
Mesut Özil, who has played for Arsenal since 2013, was condemned by politicians from across the German political spectrum who accused him of betraying the country’s democratic values with his apparent public support for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Özil, whose grandparents immigrated to Germany from Turkey, announced his immediate retirement from international football on Sunday night in a series of emotional tweets in which he claimed “If we win, I’m German. If we lose, I’m an immigrant”.
His claims were dismissed by Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, who said: “I don’t see what the case of a multi-millionaire living and working in England tells you about integration in Germany”.
And Germany’s most prominent politician of Turkish heritage accused Mr Özil of letting down the immigrant community by posing for an election campaign photograph with President Erdogan.
The past couple of weeks have given me time to reflect, and time to think over the events of the last few months. Consequently, I want to share my thoughts and feelings about what has happened. pic.twitter.com/WpWrlHxx74
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
“I’m glad to say many German Turks living here support a democratic Turkey. Mesut Özil let them down as a role model,” Cem Özdemir of the Green Party said.
The row centres on Mr Özil’s decision to pose alongside Mr Erdogan and give him a signed Arsenal shirt during the Turkish president’s election campaign visit to London’s Turkish community in May.
The controversial pictures caused public outrage in Germany at a time when several German citizens were being held on political charges as part of Mr Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech in Turkey.
They came only months after the release of Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist held without trial in Turkey for over a year whose cause became a cause celebre in Germany.
Ilkay Gundogan, another German-Turkish premiership footballer who posed for the pictures, gave Mr Erdogan a signed Manchester City shirt inscribed “To my president”.
The two footballers were booed by German fans at friendly games against Austria and Saudi Arabia in June and many commentators blamed ill feeling within the team over the photographs for Germany’s disastrous performance at this year’s World Cup.
Mr Gundogan apologised and explained that he had met the Turkish president in a private capacity, but Mr Özil had remained silent on the meeting until this weekend.
“Although I grew up in Germany, my roots are in Turkey,” he said on Sunday. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish. My mother taught me never to forget where I came from. These are still my values today. The photo with President Erdogan was not about politics but about respect for the highest office of my family’s country.”
The explanation was rejected by most German politicians. “Poising with the autocrat Erdogan was disrespectful to those who are fined in Turkey or sitting arbitrarily in its prison,” Mr Özdemir said on Monday.
“Nobody is being asked to deny their roots, but of course I also expect a clear commitment to the new homeland. And I expect a clear commitment to our values, especially when it concerns someone like Mr Erdogan, from people who live and here and enjoy all our freedoms — freedoms which Mr Erdogan denies his countrymen,” said Thomas Strobl of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU).
“With all respect for their family roots, members of the national football team have to put up with criticism if they offer themselves for election campaign purposes,” Annette Widmann-Mauz, the German government’s integration commissioner said.
But Mr Özil said the reaction to the photographs in Germany had gone far beyond political criticism and that he had been the victim of racism.
A German fan called him a “Turkish pig” after a World Cup game, he said, and pointed to two incidents in which a prominent German theatre figure told him to “p*** off to Anatolia” on Twitter and a centre-Left politician described him and Mr Gundogan as “goat-f******”.
“Despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup in 2014, I am still not accepted into society,” he said.
“Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit. My friends Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it’s Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim?”
Katarina Barley, the justice minister, was a rare voice of support for Mr Özil among German politicians. “It’s an alarm signal when a great German footballer like Mesut Özil no longer wants to be in his country because of racism and does not feel represented by the German football board,” she said.
The footballer also won the support of the Turkish government. “I congratulate Mesut Özil, who scored his greatest ever goal against the fascist virus with his departure from the German national team,” said Abdulhamit Gül, the Turkish justice minister.
Mrs Merkel refused to be drawn on the row. “The chancellor greatly appreciates Mesut Özil very much,” her spokesman said on Monday. “Mesut Özil is a great football player who has done a lot for the national football team. He has now made a decision and it must be respected.”
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