Defending World Cup champion Germany is experiencing firsthand how political “the beautiful game” has become.
National team players Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan remain at the center of a political storm that has triggered rescue responses from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel. It erupted three weeks ago after a controversial photo session with the two players smiling alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The fallout has been far greater than the two players, both of Turkish descent and born in the industrial city of Gelsenkirchen, could ever have imagined. And the timing couldn’t be worse — ahead of the World Cup, one of the most viewed sporting events in the world, which kicks off on Thursday in Russia.
At a friendly game Friday against Saudi Arabia, in preparation for the German team’s first tournament match in Mexico, fans hounded Mr. Gündogan with piercing whistles. “We had a great atmosphere in the stadium until Ilkay came off the bench,” defender Mats Hummels said. “Then came all the whistling every time he kicked the ball. And the super atmosphere was gone.”
All because last month Mr. Gündogan, who plays for Manchester City, and Mr. Özil, of British Premier League rival Arsenal, had their photographs taken with Mr. Erdogan in London. Mr. Erdogan was in the city meeting with expats to muster support for his re-election on June 24. Each presented the Turkish president, a soccer fan, with a signed club jersey.
The photos unleashed an outpouring of criticism from lawmakers across Germany’s political spectrum; several politicians criticized the pair, especially Mr. Gündogan who wrote on his jersey, “With respect to my president.” Anti-immigration populists pounced on the opportunity. Beatrix von Storch, a parliamentarian with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), tweeted: “How can Gündogan play for the national team if he recognizes Erdogan as his president?”
Unwittingly, Mr. Gündogan’s gesture touched on the sensitive issue of Turkish-German identity and comes at a time of intense debate on how to integrate the migrants who have arrived in the country over the past three years.
Germany is home to nearly 1.5 million Turks, many of whom still speak Turkish and live together in Turkish neighborhoods. And even many of those holding a German passport identify more with the Turkish president than with Mr. Steinmeier. It’s a reality in many German cities, including Berlin’s Neukölln district and Duisburg’s Marxloh.
The matter is made more complex as ties between the two countries have deteriorated over the past two years amid a crackdown by Mr. Erdogan’s government on suspected supporters of a failed military coup in mid-2016. The president has closed media outlets, detained more than 160,000 people, including Germans, fired nearly the same number of public employees and extended his power even further via a referendum.
Whether fans will continue booing in Russia is all but clear, but Ms. Merkel hopes it will stop. The chancellor defended the two athletes in a talk show a day after the game, saying she thinks the players didn’t realize the stir their photos would cause and that “the last thing they wanted was to disappoint German fans in any way.”
In an earlier attempt to defuse the situation, Mr. Steinmeier met with Mr. Özil and Mr. Gündogan. “It was important to both of them to clear up any misunderstandings,” the German president said.
After some prodding, Mr. Gündogan said the meeting with Mr. Erdogan was “never intended as a political statement,” claiming he honors “German values 100 percent.” But he stopped short of an apology. Mr. Özil has remained mum on the issue and has largely avoided the fans’ whistling by staying on the bench with a bruised knee.
But trainer Joachim Löw, whose hands are already full trying to bring his underperforming team up to speed ahead of the World Cup, must add defending the players to his workload. He called the photo session “an unfortunate action,” but is ignoring calls to drop the pair from the team.
Even the team’s manager, Oliver Bierhof, tried to end the spat in an TV interview ahead of the Saudi Arabia game, saying “enough is enough.” But his appeal appears to have only added more fuel to the fire.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global.