Berlin, Germany, Jul 23 – “He did the right thing,” said 63-year-old Abbas Haydin, as Turks in Berlin on Monday rallied around football star Mesut Ozil and praised his decision to quit the Germany team over perceived racism.
“He has set an example. This was bound to happen when you insult someone because of their origin or their faith,” said the Turkish-born pensioner, who arrived in Germany over two decades ago.
Ozil, a third-generation German, has been in the firing line ever since he had his picture taken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May, sparking questions about his loyalty to Germany.
The criticism intensified after the defending champions embarrassingly crashed out of the first round of the World Cup, and the best-selling Bild daily has for weeks been calling for the Arsenal midfielder to be axed from the starting team.
“German media are writing that the Mannschaft lost because of Ozil. That’s not true!” Haydin told AFP at a snack bar in Berlin’s diverse Moabit area, home to a large Turkish community.
Ozil, 29, announced his resignation from the national squad in a withering statement on Sunday citing “racism and disrespect”, including from the president of the German Football Association (DFB), Reinhard Grindel.
The DFB on Monday vehemently rejected Ozil’s claims, saying the DFB “stands for diversity, from the representatives at the top to the boundless, day-to-day dedication of people at the base”.
– ‘Palpable racism’ –
Haydin insisted there was nothing wrong with Ozil’s decision to pose for a picture with the Turkish leader, shortly before Erdogan went on to win a second term with sweeping new powers.
“He (Ozil) is from Turkey,” the pensioner said. Besides, he added, “Erdogan didn’t win through weapons, he was elected.”
German-born Ozil gave up his Turkish nationality in 2007 so he could play for Germany, a country that is home to more than three million people with Turkish roots.
He defended his photo with Erdogan in Sunday’s statement, insisting had no political motive and was merely being respectful towards his heritage and links to Turkey.
The four-page missive, posted on Twitter and Instagram, marked the first time Ozil had publicly addressed the controversy.
His teammate Ilkay Gundogan, who also posed with Erdogan, escaped much of the firestorm of criticism by apologising for the picture early on.
Ozil “made the right decision” by quitting, supermarket worker Demier Ahmet told AFP, adding that the future of the German national team looks less bright now.
“Without Ozil, they have no chance, he’s a very good player,” the 42-year-old added.
Wolfgang Flecks, a social worker in Moabit, was more nuanced, saying Ozil could have handled the Erdogan controversy better.
“Gundogan apologised, Ozil didn’t… maybe that was a mistake,” the 56-year-old mused.
“But to say that Germany lost because of him is ridiculous.”
Flecks said he could understand Ozil’s accusations of racism in football, at a time when the far-right is on the rise in Germany.
“If he says that’s how he perceives it, there must be something to it,” Flecks said, acknowledging that “racism and anti-Semitism are palpable” in Germany.
– ‘Scapegoat’ –
Gokay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish community association in Germany, also jumped to Ozil’s defence, calling on Facebook for DFB management to step down for making Ozil their “scapegoat” for Germany’s disastrous World Cup.
“The diversity in the national team was a great showcase that is now at risk of failing because of incompetent leadership,” he wrote.
Ozil, who has been open about his Muslim faith, has long been a target of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which openly blamed him for Germany’s World Cup flop.
But that even some in the football world questioned Ozil’s patriotism after the photo row and the team’s poor performance in Russia has been much harder to stomach for his supporters.
“If he’d become world champion, there wouldn’t have been any problem at all,” Haydin fumed.