German soccer star Mesut Ozil said on Sunday he would no longer play for the national team because he faced “racism and disrespect” because of his Turkish roots.
The most prominent German politician of Turkish origin said it would be difficult for the head of the national soccer association to stay in the role, adding that Ozil’s departure would only be welcomed by those who opposed diversity.
Ozil’s announcement on social media late on Sunday led national newspapers to clear their front pages for the midfielder, 29, a key member of Germany’s World Cup-winning side in 2014 – and also of the side eliminated at the group stage of the 2018 tournament in Russia.
But the creative midfielder faced a barrage of criticism at home for having his photograph taken with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in May.
He and Ilkay Gundogan, a team mate also of Turkish descent who posed with Erdogan as well, were jeered by German fans in warm-up games before the World Cup in Russia.
Germany failed to qualify from the group stage, making their earliest exit from the tournament in 80 years and Ozil was one of the scapegoats for their unsuccessful title defense.
Ozil, who plays for English club Arsenal, said German Football Association (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel had blamed him for Germany’s poor performance.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote in a lengthy statement in English posted on his Twitter account.
He added he did not feel accepted in German society despite paying taxes there, making donations to German schools and being part of the team that won the World Cup.
“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.
“I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t,” he said. “I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”
Many European footballers who play for national teams have a heritage in a different country but it is extremely rare for such players to cite racism resulting from those roots as a reason to abandon their national side.
There is also a debate about whether enough is done to stamp out racism in the sport, which many black players have faced over the decades often in the form of chants by opposing fans.
Ozil questioned whether there were criteria for being German that he did not meet and asked why he should be referred to as German-Turkish when fellow German soccer players Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were not referred to as German-Polish.
“Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue,” he said.
Germany’s Social Democrat Justice Minister Katarina Barley said on Twitter: “It’s alarming if a great German football player like Mesut Ozil no longer feels wanted in his country and doesn’t feel represented by the DFB due to racism.”
Veteran Greens lawmaker Cem Ozdemir, who has Turkish roots, said Ozil’s photo was wrong and his explanation unconvincing but added: “The way the DFB leadership acted is at least as disastrous – Grindel is hacking our history of integration to pieces. Do they want young German-Turks to start playing for Erdogan soon? The DFB needs a fresh start.”