Frankfurt (AFP) – The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party found itself under fire Sunday after a leading member made racist remarks about the national football team’s defender Jerome Boateng, forcing its leader to issue an apology.
The uproar was started by AfD’s deputy chief Alexander Gauland, who told the Sunday newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) that Germans would not like to live next door to Boateng, who has a Ghanaian father and was born and brought up in Berlin.
“People find him good as a footballer, but they don’t want to have a Boateng as a neighbour,” Gauland said.
On Sunday, the 75-year-old Gauland attempted to back track.
“I have never, as the FAS insinuates, insulted Mr Boateng,” he told German daily Bild.
“I do not know him nor would I therefore have the idea to devalue him as a personality.”
The newspaper FAS put out a statement saying both of their reporters, who interviewed Gauland in Potsdam last Wednesday, had a record of his comments, which have drawn widespread condemnation.
AfD party chief Frauke Petry has tried to calm the storm, telling the mass-circulation daily Bild that Gauland “cannot recall whether he made that statement.”
“Independent of that, I apologise to Mr Boateng for the impression that arose,” she said.
And Petry subsequently tweeted: “Jerome Boateng is a super footballer who is rightly a member of the German national team. I’m looking forward to the European championships.”
Nevertheless, Gauland’s comments have fallen offside with key figures in German football and politics.
The president of the DFB German football league, Reinhard Grindel, slammed them as “simply tasteless”.
Boateng, 27, “is an excellent player and a wonderful person, who gets involved in social causes and is a role model for many young people”.
The manager of the German national team, Oliver Bierhoff, said: “It isn’t the first time that we’ve been confronted with such statements. They need no comment. The people who made them are simply discrediting themselves.”
Benedikt Hoewedes, who won the World Cup alongside Boateng in the German team, wrote, “if you want to win the title for Germany, you need neighbours like him” alongside a picture of Boateng on Twitter.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Boateng’s club Bayern Munich, said racism needs to be shown a red card.
“Discrimination of any kind has no place in sports and in our society. It deserves the red card,” Rummenigge said.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas slammed Gauland’s comments as “unacceptable and shabby”.
“People who say things like that unmask themselves, and not just as a bad neighbour,” he wrote on Twitter.
Last week, members of the anti-Islam Pegida movement sparked controversy when they took to Facebook to attack members of the national football team with migrant backgrounds.
Pegida supporters complained when childhood photos of players including Boateng, as well as midfielders Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, were used in a marketing campaign for Ferrero’s Kinder chocolate in the run-up to the UEFA Euro football championships, due to be held in France in June.
The AfD, founded on a eurosceptic platform three years ago, has vocally protested Germany’s record refugee influx that brought more than one million asylum seekers to Europe’s top economy last year alone.
The party won several regional assembly seats in recent state elections.