It is a classic case of sport and politics making for uneasy bedfellows. Last month, during a state visit to London by Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City and Mesut Ozil of Arsenal were photographed handing him football jerseys bearing the words “my president”. Unwittingly, their action triggered a backlash so intense that Ozil was booed continuously during Germany’s friendly with Austria on June 2nd, while last week, on June 9th, Gundogan was on the end of similar treatment from Germany fans during a match against Saudi Arabia, a game Ozil missed due to injury.
In an effort to manage the situation, former German international turned German FA official, Oliver Bierhoff, was moved to chastise Ozil publicly, telling Sport Bild in an interview:
“That’s his position (to stay silent). I assume that he’ll stick to this. Whether it’s right and good for him in this case is another matter. We have seen the consequences and he knows from experience. He made a mistake. But above all, the intention counts for us. He was not vicious, not politically driven, but naive, thoughtless. I’m less worried about the team in general, but more about the two players. (Germany) already rely on Mesut and Ilkay a lot.”
Both Ozil and Gundogan are of Turkish origin and no doubt believed that what they did was harmless, but to assume that the German public would turn a blind eye to their actions was indeed naive.
Like most nations, Germans are fiercely patriotic and expect the same patriotism from their players. German sportsmen and women are expected to sing the National Anthem and show loyalty to Germany. What they do not expect is for a German citizen to pledge his or her loyalty to the president of another country.
It is an age old situation, and while it is natural for immigrants to be split over which team to support, German fans cannot be blamed for feeling the way they do. Both Ozil and Gundogan could easily have chosen to play for Turkey but did not. Instead, they chose Germany and from that very moment onwards, their loyalty, at least in public, should always be towards their adoptive country.
Of course, they will claim that they remain as loyal to Germany as ever they were but their actions, and their refusal to comment on them, will leave the German public in doubt as to where their true loyalties lie. Either way, the backlash is understandable and it is hard to see how this will ever be resolved to the fans’ satisfaction.
Well, maybe scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final would do the trick.