Vatutinki (Russia) (AFP) – Mesut Ozil has been challenged to do his talking on the pitch in Germany’s World Cup opener against Mexico on Sunday after refusing to comment on a political storm triggered by a picture of him with the Turkish president.
Arsenal midfielder Ozil and Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan, who were born in Germany to Turkish parents, were whistled by German fans in pre-World Cup friendlies after posing for a photo alongside President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month.
Gundogan presented Erdogan with a Manchester City shirt signed “to my president”, sparking fierce debate in Germany about whether the players see themselves as Turkish or German.
Gundogan insists the meeting was not politically motivated, but Arsenal star Ozil has refused to comment and the row has followed the pair to Russia.
German Football Association (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel says the team’s fans must back them, but he also gave Ozil a thinly-veiled ultimatum.
“If he doesn’t want to give an answer, then hopefully he will on the pitch,” the DFB boss said on Wednesday.
The pair were booed by German fans in the 2-1 defeat away to Austria a fortnight ago.
Ozil was injured for last week’s win over Saudi Arabia, but Gundogan was jeered when he came off the bench in Leverkusen.
German tabloid Bild claims he wept in the dressing room afterwards and had to be comforted by teammates.
The issue has been an unwanted distraction in the defending World Cup champions’ camp.
“The two have answered our questions within the team, but I can understand that there are people who did not like the meeting (with Erdogan),” said forward Thomas Mueller.
Midfielder Toni Kroos believes it will help both Gundogan and Ozil when the tournament gets under way.
“What is talked about in any talk shows can, and should not, interest us. We are here to play football,” the Real Madrid star said Thursday.
Ozil, a key player in the victorious campaign in Brazil in 2014 when Gundogan was often injured, has shown at Arsenal that he is sensitive to criticism.
The Erdogan saga will put the attacking midfielder under the spotlight, adding extra pressure against Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Head coach Joachim Loew has made it clear the issue is taking a toll, but “not for a second” did he think of axing the pair.
– ‘Throw them out’ –
“My job is to get both players, who have certainly suffered from this situation, in good shape,” Loew said on Wednesday.
“It may be that these players will still be accompanied by whistles. So be it. I wish it were otherwise.”
Former Germany internationals have slammed the pair while Stefan Effenberg criticised the DFB for not taking a harder line.
“If you have certain values, as the DFB repeatedly conveys, then the decision can actually only be to throw the two players out,” said the ex-Bayern Munich midfielder.
“Ozil and Gundogan were lucky that the DFB acted inconsistently and were not quick in this case.”
Ex-West Ham midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, 36, has accused Ozil of ducking the issue.
“Mesut Ozil has never been very talkative, he shows his quality on the pitch and doesn’t speak much,” said Hitzlsperger.
“I just think it’s a shame that he never took the chance to mature as a personality off the pitch.
“Whenever it gets uncomfortable, he shifts it off to his team of advisors and is unable to react.”
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in after speaking to Ozil and Gundogan when visiting the Germany squad before they flew to Russia.
“They belong to the national team and therefore I would be happy if fans would also clap,” said Merkel.