Mesut Ozil. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mesut Ozil. Picture: SUPPLIED

Berlin — German footballer Mesut Ozil’s decision to quit the national team due to "racism and disrespect" he faced over his Turkish roots threw a spotlight on Monday on the country’s relations with its largest immigrant community.

Cem Ozdemir, the most prominent German politician of Turkish origin, said it would be difficult for the head of the national football association to stay in the role, adding that Ozil’s departure would only be welcomed by those who opposed diversity.

The German Football Association (DFB) on Monday rejected claims of racism made by Ozil against its president, Reinhard Grindel, in an angry resignation letter. "We reject the notion that the DFB is associated with racism," read a statement.

"The DFB stands for diversity, from the representatives at the top to the boundless, day-to-day dedication of people at the base."

Ozil’s announcement on social media late on Sunday led national newspapers to clear their front pages for the 29-year-old midfielder, who was 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.

The player, who faced a barrage of criticism for having his photograph taken with Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May, was especially piqued by criticism from Grindel, who he said blamed him for Germany crashing out of the tournament in June.

"In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose," Ozil wrote. He said he was true to both his Turkish and German origins and insisted he did not intend to make a political statement by appearing with Erdogan just before the World Cup finals.

"I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish," said Ozil.

Ozdemir, the former head of the Greens party, said it would be difficult for Grindel to do his job in future given the diverse reality of Germany and its football team.

"Grindel doesn’t reflect the breadth of football in Germany and so it will be hard for German Turks, or indeed German Croats, to feel that the DFB is theirs."

Former DFB president Theo Zwanziger was quoted in German media as saying the DFB had not done enough to solve conflicts ahead of the World Cup. "Communication mistakes mean something happened that should never happen to migrants. They should never feel like second-class Germans. Ozil’s resignation is a major setback for integration efforts beyond football in our country."

A spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the majority of the 3-million people with Turkish roots who live in Germany were well integrated. She said people with migrant backgrounds were welcome in Germany and added that the German chancellor valued Ozil.

The row comes amid a political debate in Germany about an influx of 1.6-million migrants since mid-2014, which has fuelled a rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party at the expense of traditional parties. It also exposed differences of opinion over the country’s large Turkish community.

Just as 2014’s victorious German side was celebrated for its diversity, so too was France’s World Cup-winning team in 2018 for having numerous players with African roots.

But the Bild newspaper accused Ozil of "pure self-pity" and its editor highlighted his decision to post in English, accusing him of trying to maximise his audience.

In Turkey, however, politicians heaped praise on the player and lashed out at those who they said had abused him.

Reuters, AFP