Mesut Ozil on Monday was warmly applauded by Turkey but faced uproar at home in Germany after announcing he was quitting the German national football team, lambasting “racism” over criticism for the side’s World Cup debacle.
Ozil, who has Turkish roots but was born in Germany, had been under fire since posing for a controversial photograph with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May which sparked questions about his loyalty to Germany’s squad ahead of the tournament in Russia.
“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” he said in a statement on social media channels on Sunday.
Ozil, 29, said he had been unfairly blamed in Germany for the side’s shock group stage exit at the World Cup.
He insisted he was true to both his Turkish and German origins and did not intend to make a political statement by appearing with Erdogan a month ahead of elections in Turkey.
“I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” said Ozil.
The Turkish government of Erdogan, who has championed a campaign against what Ankara sees as growing Islamophobia in Europe, hailed Ozil’s move.
“I congratulate Mesut Ozil who by leaving the national team has scored the most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism,” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul wrote on Twitter.
Turkey’s Sports Minister Mehmet Kasapoglu, like Gul posting the picture of a smiling Ozil with Erdogan, added: “We sincerely support the honourable stance that our brother Mesut Ozil has taken”.
– ‘Immigrant when we lose’ –
The Arsenal midfielder blamed the German Football Federation (DFB) for failing to defend him against his most strident critics, lashing out at “mistreatment” in particular from DFB President Reinhard Grindel.
He said that Grindel and Germany coach Joachim Loew had asked him to give a “joint statement to end all the talk and set the record straight” over the picture with Erdogan.
“Whilst I attempted to explain to Grindel my heritage, ancestry and therefore reasoning behind the photo, he was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion.”
“I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his (Grindel’s) incompetence and inability to do his job properly,” he said.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
Fellow German international Ilkay Gundogan, born in Germany to Turkish parents, was also present at the London meeting with Erdogan in May on the president’s visit to Britain, as well as striker Cenk Tosun of Everton who was born in Germany but represents Turkey.
The photo, which was published on the presidential website and the Twitter feed of the ruling party, came just before the June 24 polls Erdogan won to claim sweeping new powers.
Ozil said that despite the timing of the picture “it wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country”.
“My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies,” Ozil added.
Germany is home to more than three million people of Turkish origin.
Manchester City midfielder Gundogan presented Erdogan with a signed club shirt on which he had written “to my president”.
The two players were booed by German fans in pre-World Cup friendlies over their appearance with the Turkish strongman, and Ozil said Sunday that he and his family had received threats.
– ‘Crosses a line’ –
Ozil said he could abide criticism of his performance on the pitch but not when it was linked to his ethnic background.
“If a newspaper or pundit finds fault in a game I play in, then I can accept this,” he said.
“But what I can’t accept are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad,” he added, calling it “right-wing propaganda”.
“This crosses a personal line that should never be crossed, as newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me.”
He also furiously denounced disparaging remarks by former captain Lothar Matthaeus, who he noted “met with another world leader a few days back and received almost no media criticism” in an apparent reference to an appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.