Row Over Players' Picture With Erdogan Still Haunts German Team After Loss

Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, who are German players of Turkish origin, have been at the center of a media storm in Germany after they met with Turkish President Erdogan in London last May

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Arsenal's soccer player Mesut Ozil in London, Britain May 13, 2018. Picture taken May 13, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.?
\ KAYHAN OZER/ REUTERS

Mexico beat defending champion Germany 1-0 in the World Cup match on Sunday, leaving German soccer commentators to wonder whether a recent media storm involving German players of Turkish origin had an impact on the team's performance.

Players Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, who are both of Turkish origin, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to London in May, causing an instant uproar in German press.

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Germany and Turkey have had frequent diplomatic showdowns in recent years, mostly based on accusations that Turkey's president is becoming increasingly authoritarian and that Erdogan's government violates human rights.

In 2017, Turkey protested vehemently after Germany said it would not allow Erdogan to campaign with the local Turkish diaspora for the referendum on the presidential system in April. Germany strongly criticized Turkey after journalist Deniz Yucel, a dual German-Turkish national, was arrested in Istanbul. 

Germany fans display a banner referencing Germany's Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan inside the stadium before the match, Moscow, Russia, June 17, 2018
\ CARL RECINE/ REUTERS

During Erdogan's official visit to London, where he met with British Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss a number of issues, including the high death toll in Gaza during protests against the U.S. relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ozil and Gundogan gifted Erdogan with jerseys from British teams, Arsenal and Manchester City, where they play respectively.

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Perhaps more crucially to causing a media storm in Germany, the two were pictured proudly posing next to Erdogan, with Gundogan even addressing him as "my revered President" in a note attached to the jersey.

According to a report by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News on Saturday, Gundogan's car was damaged by vandals during Germany's friendly game with Saudi Arabia on June 7. Windows were smashed in a night raid that local media widely interpreted as a retaliation for the picture he took with Erdogan. 

Accusations of double loyalty swept through German media, and German Football Association President Reinhard Grindel joined in the criticism saying Erdogan was trying to "exploit" them for his election campaign for the upcoming Turkish elections on June 24.

Germany's Mesut Ozil in action in World Cup match of Germany vs Mexico at Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia on June 17, 2018
\ MAXIM SHEMETOV/ REUTERS

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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked the players to meet him to calm the waters.“It was important to both of them to clarify the misunderstandings,” Steinmeier said on Facebook in the aftermath of the meeting, posting a picture of the three of them together.

The players also met with representatives of the German Football Association. “Both assured us that they had not wanted to send any political signal with that action,” Grindel told reporters, according to Reuters.

“They also stated that they stand for our values on and off the pitch and that they identify with them,” he added.

Despite the joint efforts of political and soccer authorities to make the controversy blow over, fans anticipated possible booing of Ozil and Gundogan in the match with Mexico, and soccer commentators in Germany are still discussing the impact of the controversy on the team.