Against Saudi Arabia last Saturday, İlkay Gündoğan got off the bench to replace Marco Reus. His arrival was met with a chorus of jeers, boos and whistles from the Leverkusen crowd. To the casual watcher, it must have been a confusing moment.
Here was a German player, in front of a German crowd, days before the German team were due to set off for the World Cup. Every time Gündoğan touched the ball, you could hear it. That distinctive trill. It clearly had an effect. The quality of the defensive midfielder’s play dropped through the floor, which only increased the level of the noise coming from the crowd. With it, the entire team appeared to drop down a couple of gears.
It was hardly the most edifying sight. Nobody wants see a player being jeered, more so if it causes him to make mistakes. It is also the last thing we wanted to see in Germany’s last warmup match before they fly off to Russia. The final home match before a major tournament is usually a happy a sign off, a farewell to the Mannschaft before they return next month with a fifth world title.
Well, that is what is written in the script.
The story had started in May, when a number of rather odd photographs made their way on social media. Photographs of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in London, standing with a big smirk on his face. Alongside him, three footballers who ply their trade in England’s Premier League. Everton’s Cenk Tosun, Arsenal’s Mesut Özil and Manchester City’s Gündoğan.
Cumhurbaşkanımız Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, çeşitli temaslarda bulunmak üzere gittiği İngiltere'nin başkenti Londra'da Premier Lig'de oynayan Türk futbolcu Cenk Tosun, Türk asıllı futbolcu Mesut Özil ve Türk asıllı futbolcu İlkay Gündoğan'ı kabul etti. pic.twitter.com/X3ZY8wwCsa
— AK Parti (@Akparti) May 14, 2018
There was World Cup winner Özil, beaming like the Cheshire Cat with the top of a Turkish flag looking like a little red dunce’s cap. There was Gündoğan, hair slicked back and with a bristling moustache, looking like an extra from the film Taken. To their left, Mr. Erdoğan. In all, a rather shifty-looking gathering with a nasty whiff of manipulation and electioneering.
For Tosun, this was not an issue. Despite being born in Wetzlar in Germany, he has opted to play international football for Turkey.
Unsurprisingly, it all kicked off in Germany. Various individuals from inside and outside football laid into the two German internationals, with varying degrees of venom. While some chose to attack the Turkish president for possibly manipulating Özil and Gündoğan, others turned their ire on the players themselves.
Criticism ranged from their simply being naive, through to accusations of their betraying Germany and siding with the controversial Turkish dictator. The vexed issues of German democratic values, assimilation and Migrationshintergrund were brought into high relief, and both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and DFB president Reinhard Grindel were quick to offer a response.
Criticism was acute, from all sides of the political spectrum. AfD spokeswoman Beatrix von Storch unsurprisingly questioned the players’ loyalties. Green politician Cem Özdemir, of Turkish descent himself and a long-standing critic of the Erdoğan regime, was equally scathing.
According to Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Siebert, the meeting had “raised questions and invited misunderstandings”. More so given that both players are seen as role models in Germany. Grindel was more forthright, accusing the Turkish president of taking advantage of the two German players to push his election campaign. The DFB supremo also made clear that the German federation stood for values that were not represented by Mr. Erdoğan.
Caught in a quandary
The entire affair left the DFB, team manager Oliver Bierhoff and Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw in a bit of a fix. Their boss had made his position clear, but there was still the small matter of clearing things up internally and quietly taking the players back into the fold.
Apologies were offered, which sounded fudged. Both players affirmed their loyalty to German democratic values. At the same time, they pleaded ignorance of the political ramifications. Professional footballers do live in a bubble, but it is hard to buy such a claim. Erdoğan has been a divisive character among Turks living in Germany for a long time. His presence is hard to ignore.
One could argue that the players were unwilling parties. But what were their agents doing? These are people who are expected to understand things that the players they represent may not be aware of. That Özil and Gündoğan were possibly even advised to participate in such a charade is a scandal in itself.
If the London photo shoot could have been massaged into a case of the players being duped by a cynical politician, the same cannot be said of what was written on the shirt presented to the Turkish leader by Gündoğan. While Özil’s Arsenal shirt was signed and nothing more, Gündoğan’s Manchester City shirt included a rather fawning dedication. “With respect for my president”.
Die sind halt einfach blöd. Stellen Sie immer wieder gerne unter Beweis. Erdogan-Affäre um Nationalspieler immer kurioser – Gündogan hat gar keinen türkischen Pass https://t.co/JKY7Wrt0O6
— Nirbert Nogbur (@lev_bade) June 1, 2018
It is often said that footballers are not the smartest individuals around. In many cases this may be true. But this accusation cannot be levelled against Gündoğan, an eloquent and articulate man who has often stood a notch above his contemporaries.
Which makes his obsequious dedication to the Turkish president even more inexplicable.
The Gelsenkirchen-born Gündoğan has made it known that his loyalties lie with Germany. At the same time, one has to wonder if he might also be a genuine supporter of the Turkish president. Or have something to gain. Nobody has actually broached the issue, and it is unlikely that any journalist will be so blunt as to sit down with the player and ask the question.
A matter of respect
In a statement explaining his decision to attend the London meeting, Gündoğan said that it was “out of respect for the office of the President and our Turkish roots, even as German citizens, as a gesture of courtesy”. He simply did not want to be “rude”.
The key here is his being a German citizen. Turkish roots or not, Erdoğan is not even Gündoğan’s compatriot, let alone his president. Not only were the player’s actions foolish, they were patently absurd.
As for showing courtesy, this is a fair comment. Regardless of who he is and what he may or may not have done, Erdoğan should still be treated with the appropriate level of manners and decorum. But this did not have to involve meeting him. A polite letter of refusal would have more than sufficed. A simple danke, aber nein danke.
Like Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, Emre Can is a German international with Turkish roots. He too plays in the Premier League, and had also been invited to meet Erdoğan. Unlike Özil and Gündoğan, Can politely declined.
Managing the issue
Whether the DFB asked the right questions when the two players were spoken to, we may never know. As part of a quickly thought out reeducation exercise, they were both invited to meet their real president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The president of Germany.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) May 20, 2018
The media shit storm has not helped the German team’s preparation for the World Cup, and the jeering of Gündoğan suggests that the debate is far from over. Oliver Bierhoff has urged supporters to stop with the booing and whistling. Jogi Löw has made it a point that fans should draw a line under the affair, showing his solidarity by putting his arm around Gündoğan just as the first volley of jeers could be heard ringing around the BayArena.
Grounds for exclusion?
The possibility of disruption in the squad and a rift with the fans naturally brings up another issue. That of possible exclusion. Even if Özil could be given a pass for his being involved in the Erdoğan photo call, it is less easy to explain away Gündoğan’s “my president” dedication.
Others have been blackballed for a lot less.
At the World Cup in 1994, combative midfielder Stefan Effenberg was thrown out of the squad by coach Berti Vogts for giving some critical German fans the Stinkefinger after the group phase match against South Korea. Not the prettiest gesture in the world, an emotional response to provocation at worst. Far from accepting an invitation to meet a foreign dictator, putting on a smart suit, and presenting him with a signed shirt.
In October 2008, there was the case of Kevin Kurányi. Having been left out of the World Cup qualifier against Russia in Dortmund, the Schalke 04 striker decided at half time that he no longer wanted to watch the match from the stands. Rather than hang around for the second half, he decided to head off to his hotel.
Having amassed 52 international caps, Kurányi was not exactly a bit-part player. Yet for this walk-off he was banished by Jogi Löw, never to play for the Mannschaft again. Worthy of a severe ticking off, but to be sent packing into the wilderness? It was not as though KK22 had scooted off for a parlay with Vladimir Putin.
This debate will continue, as will remain topical so long as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in the news. He is a divisive character, and every time his face appears on our phones, monitors and television screens some of us will think of that unsavoury photograph.
As a fan of the Mannschaft who wants to see the team succeed in Russia, the last thing I want to see is unnecessary friction between the team and their twelfth man in the stands. Özil and Gündoğan are in the squad, and German fans should be encouraged to cheer them on alongside their 21 colleagues. It will be hard, especially for those who may have their own opinion on the Erdoğan affair. But the last thing we want is the squad to deal with issues off the pitch when they will be facing plenty on it.
If some people do want to throw a few jeers at Özil and Gündoğan, save them for when they are playing for Arsenal and Manchester City, the clubs whose shirts are now hanging in Erdoğan’s bedroom wardrobe. Right now, Germany have a trophy to win.