Germany is a nation crazy for football. As the country gears up for this year’s world cup in Russia, the national team’s coach, Joachim Löw, announced his preliminary squad on May 15, signalling the onset of the countdown to the tournament.

Two footballers posing with President Erdoğan

Yet the squad presentation was overshadowed by politics: On May 13, players Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in London, posing for photos with the AK Party leader. The pair also presented Erdoğan with jerseys; Gündoğan had written the dedication “With respect to my present” on his.

The meeting took place in the context of a larger event organised by a Turkish foundation supporting Turkish youth studying abroad. Gündoğan stressed that he had not shared the photos via his official social media channels in order not to send a political message.(( ))  The Turkish President’s side did not exercise such restraint, however; and the photos quickly appeared on the AK Party’s social media channels.

President Erdoğan is in the middle of an electoral campaign, running up to parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24. The Turkish President called citizens to the balot box a year and a half early, in what is widely perceived as a bid to solidify his increasingly authoritarian grip on power.(( ))

Failures of ‘integration’

The willingness of prominent Manchester City and F.C. Arsenal players Gündoğan and Özil to pose for pictures with the Turkish leader, together with their colleague Cenk Tosun from F.C. Everton, was promptly denounced in the German media. The national football association, as well as leading policy-makers, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, followed suit in their condemnation.

Voices from across the political spectrum accused the players of endorsing a dictatorial ruler, of betraying Germany’s values, and of being examples of the failed attempt to ‘integrate‘ Turkish and Muslim immigrants.(( )) Many personalities of Turkish extraction seconded these criticisms.(( )) (Another German football player of Turkish extraction, Liverpool’s Emre Can, had rejected President Erdoğan’s request for meeting.)

While all three players were born and raised to Turkish parents in Germany, only Gündoğan and Özil are playing for the German national football team, with Tosun having opted to play for Turkey instead. While Özil is a German citizen, Gündoğan reportedly holds both a German and a Turkish passport. (This would, effectively, make Erdoğan ‘his’ president – meaning that the dedication he wrote on his jersey can not only be interpreted as a declaration of loyalty but also as a statement of fact.)

Strains in German-Turkish relations

Official relations between Germany and Turkey have soured over the past years. Tensions have flared up in the context of Turkish authorities’ crackdown on dissent since the 2016 coup attempt. German citizens have been caught up in the wave of repression that has swept through the country, with a number of high-profile journalists and activists being held in Turkish prisons for months without charge.

President Erdoğan’s authoritarian shift has been the object of fierce criticism in the German media. However, beyond the much-needed chronicling of Turkey’s repressive turn, German commentaries on Turkish affairs generally remain weak in terms of analytical depth. Knowledge about the internal workings of Turkish politics seems close to non-existent. There is, therefore, no ability to place current developments in their context or to actually comprehend the twists and turns of Turkish domestic events.

As a result, Germans’ awareness of Turkey and of Turkish politics boils down to a caricatured representation of President Erdoğan. The founder and leader of the AK Party is routinely vilified, while actual understanding of Turkish politics remains elusive. (Needless to say, Erdoğan’s own conduct and propensity for controversy give permanent nourishment to this focussing on the President’s personality.)

Germans’ obsession with Erdoğan

Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) – a think-tank advising the German parliament and federal government on foreign policy issues –, recently criticised the German public’s obsession with the Turkish president.

Asked by the Tagesspiegel newspaper how Germany should position itself vis-à-vis the Turkish strongman, Perthes replied: “Talk less about Erdoğan! The more our Turkey policy becomes an Erdoğan policy, the more we pretend that Turkey is his private possession. And then Erdoğan’s personal agenda always takes the foreground” while complex political issues come to be understood only in terms of “Erdoğan’s ego”, or so Perthes pointed out.(( ))

Loyalty to Germany

Yet the kernel of the German anxiety about the Turkish President has, more often than not, little to do with the noble upholding of democratic values in the face of an authoritarian crackdown. Instead, the implicit fear is that he might be able to exercise an influence over Germany’s significant population with Turkish roots. German Turks, in other words, appear as the potential fifth column of a hostile power.

This fear was particularly evident in the aftermath of Özil’s and Gündoğan’s photo shoot. Many called for the exclusion of the two players from the national team. In the Welt newspaper, journalist Lutz Wöckener asserted: “No one can and must represent Germany who sees the President of another country as his own. […] The German Football Association likes to present itself as a driver of integration. With its decision in favour of Gündoğan and Özil it is sending a disastrous sign that will resonate.”(( ))

Indeed, a majority of respondents to a public opinion poll commissioned by the Focus magazine seconded Wöckener: 80 per cent asserted that the two should no longer play for the national team.(( ))

Football as the battleground for identity politics

Yet the intensity of reactions to the photo shoot are not just due to an obsessive focussing on the Turkish President. In fact, football in general has become a key arena in which questions of national belonging and identity are being fought over in Germany.

The 2006 World Cup has been widely hailed as representing the birth of a new, more positive self-image of the country. Crowds waving the German flag in order to support a multicultural and multi-ethnic team seemed to signal a more open-minded and modern patriotism, leaving behind a legacy of ethnonationalist exclusivism.

In 2016, the chairman of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Alexander Gauland, racially insulted Jérôme Boateng, son of a German father and a Ghanaian mother. Boateng, central defender of Bayern Munich and the German national team, was and would remain a stranger to Germany, Gauland asserted: “People like him as a football player. But they don’t want someone called Boateng as their neighbour.”(( ))

As a response, the German Football Association (DFB) put out a short video skit showing the different looks of some of its key players under the tagline “We are diversity” (Wir sind Vielfalt). The clip now airs on TV prior to the team’s international fixtures.


The DFB’s uncertain ‘values’

In an attempt at damage control, Özil and Gündoğan travelled to Germany in order to talk to DFB leaders, as well as to meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The main line taken by the DFB was to assert that the players had not been fully aware of the political connotations of their meeting with the Turkish President, and that they would henceforth continue to uphold the DFB’s values.(( ))

The precise nature of these values remained somewhat hazy, however. After all, the DFB has had no qualms to travel to Russia or to Qatar for the next two world cups and to collaborate extensively with officials from these two countries hardly known for their respect for democratic principles and human rights. And in order to be able to host the 2006 World Cup, the DFB has been complicit itself in large-scale acts of corruption that bought off major FIFA functionaries in return for their votes.(( ))

Against this backdrop, pointing the finger at Özil and Gündoğan does verge on hypocrisy. Ultimately, no side appears to be willing to step up for a diffuse set of ‘values’ that are routinely proclaimed as non-negotiable.

A conciliatory message from Germany’s President

Frank-Walter Steinmeier posted on Facebook that he had met the players upon their request, as Özil and Gündoğan sought to “clear up misconceptions.” Both expressed their loyalty to Germany, with Özil asserting “I grew up here and I stand by my country.” Gündoğan stressed that “today Germany is without doubt my country and my team.”

While stressing the necessary “commitment of all citizens to our country and its values”, Steinmeier struck a surprisingly conciliatory note, recalling a past speech for Germany’s national day in which he had asserted: “Homeland [Heimat] also exists in the plural. A human being can have more than one Heimat, and also find a new one. The Federal Republic has proved this for millions of people – something that has also enriched us.”

Ilkay Gündogan und Mesut Özil haben den Wunsch geäußert, mich zu besuchen. Beiden war es wichtig, entstandene…

Posted by Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday, May 19, 2018

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