Turkish-German football players Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündogan have been criticized for meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to a report by Deutsche Welle (DW) on Monday.
The Premier League stars, who were joined by a third player, Everton striker Cenk Tosun, met with Turkish President Erdoğan at London’s Four Seasons hotel on Sunday. Erdoğan, who is up for re-election on June 24, is in London for a three-day state visit.
Each player presented Erdoğan with a football jersey from his respective club before posing for a picture with the Turkish president. Gündoğan’s Manchester City shirt featured a personal message saying, “With great respect for my president.”
“While the added sentiment attached to Gündoğan’s shirt is significant, Özil’s presence seems particularly surprising. He told the German national daily Süddeutschen Zeitung, in a 2017 interview, that he generally refrains from commenting on political matters. ‘I don’t speak about politics,’ he said at the time. It emerged on Tuesday that Liverpool midfielder Emre Can had also been invited to meet Erdoğan, but declined,” wrote DW.
The Turkish-German footballers were criticized on Monday by Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football association (DFB). “Of course the DFB respects the special situation of players from migrant backgrounds,” he said. “But football and the DFB stand for values that are not sufficiently respected by Mr. Erdogan. It’s not good that our players are letting themselves be exploited for the good of his (election) campaign. The actions of these players have not helped the integration efforts of the DFB.”
After the news broke, some took to Twitter to voice their disapproval of the meeting. In the four years since Erdoğan became president, Turkey has frequently come under fire for alleged human rights violations as well as crackdowns on the press and social media. During that time, more journalists have been jailed under his regime than in any other country, and the former longtime prime minister has launched a widespread purge of the public sector since a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Many German media outlets have been particularly critical of Erdoğan’s regime.
According to the report by DW, following the backlash Gündoğan released a statement and said: “It was not our intention to make a political statement with our photo, and even less so to campaign for [Erdoğan’s] election. As Germany internationals, we are committed to the values of the DFB and are aware of our responsibilities.”
Although both were born in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen and chose to represent Germany internationally, Özil and Gündoğan are of Turkish heritage. Everton striker Tosun was also born in Germany but chose to play for Turkey.
DW reported that the timing is far from ideal, given that German national team coach Jogi Löw is set to announce his preliminary squad for the upcoming World Cup. Both Özil and Gündoğan are expected to make the squad, although, as a result of Sunday’s meeting, some fans have called for their exclusion.
The picture also drew criticism from German lawmakers from both left and right. Veteran Greens lawmaker Cem Ozdemir, of Turkish origin, described them as tasteless and embarrassing.
“Posing with the Turkish president is not exemplary behavior and is not appropriate for German national players,” said Social Democrat deputy leader Ralf Stegner.
A commentary in the top-selling Bild, which ran the photos on its front page, said: “If you have a moral position, you don’t laugh into the camera with Erdoğan. The main question is whether the two German national players still fit into our German team. I say yes. They are political idiots. But football geniuses.”
Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, after which a new constitutional system comes into force which hands the president much greater powers than before.
Turkish Football Federation Vice President Servet Yardımcı, a UEFA Executive Committee member, said Erdogan liked meeting the soccer players but that Özil and Gündoğan were not part of the election campaign.
“We have to be fair, there is no intention whatsoever to get them involved,” he told a briefing in London on Monday. “They are Turkish but are playing for German national team, and I don’t think it’s fair to involve them.”