German soccer star Mesut Ozil said on Sunday he would no longer play for the national team because he faced racism and disrespect because of his Turkish roots.
His impassioned statement comes amid a political debate in Germany about an influx of 1.6 million migrants since mid-2014 that has seen a rise of the far right at the expense of traditional parties.
Ozil was a member of Germany’s World Cup-winning side in 2014 and has been voted by fans as the team’s player of the year five times since 2011.
But the creative midfield player faced a barrage of criticism at home for having his photograph taken with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in May.
He and Ilkay Gundogan, a teammate also of Turkish descent who also posed with Erdogan, were jeered by some German fans in warm-up games before the World Cup in Russia.
Germany failed to qualify from the group stage in Russia, making their earliest exit from the tournament in 80 years and Ozil was one of the scapegoats for their unsuccessful title defence.
Ozil, who also plays for English club Arsenal, said German Football Association (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel had blamed him for Germany’s poor performance in Russia.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote in a statement posted on his Twitter account.
He added he did not feel accepted in German society despite paying taxes there, making donations to German schools and being part of the team that won the World Cup.
“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level while I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” he said.
“I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t,” he said. “I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”
Many European footballers who play for national teams have a heritage in a different country but it is extremely rare for a player to cite racism resulting from those roots as a reason to abandon a national side.
‘TWO HEARTS, ONE GERMAN, ONE TURKISH’
Ozil questioned whether there were criteria for being German that he did not meet and asked why he should be referred to as German-Turkish when fellow German soccer players Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were not referred to as German-Polish.
“Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue,” he said.
Ozil has 92 caps for Germany and has scored 23 goals.
Earlier on Sunday Ozil defended the photograph in which he was pictured beaming with Erdogan, who was campaigning for re-election at the time. Ozil made no comment on it at the height of the row.
Ozil said on Twitter he would have been “disrespecting the roots of my ancestors” if he had not met the Turkish president and it did not matter who was president.
“For me having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country,” he said.
Ozil said the meeting did not amount to any endorsement of Erdogan’s policies and added that they had discussed football.
Relations between Germany and Turkey have soured amid a crackdown by Erdogan’s government on suspected supporters of a failed military coup in July 2016. Germany is home to some three million people with Turkish roots.
Ozil said his mother had always told him to be respectful and remember his ancestry, heritage and family traditions, adding: “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.”
Many fans and politicians in Germany were angered by the photo with Erdogan and it was widely criticised by politicians and Germany’s football federation, who argued that Erdogan did not sufficiently respect German values.
Ozil said he could not accept “German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad”.
Gundogan said at the time it had not been his intention to create a political issue with the photo.