President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had spoken to Turkish-origin football star Mesut Ozil after his decision to quit the German team in protest at racism
Ankara (AFP) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said he had backed Mesut Ozil's decision to quit the German national team on racism grounds in a telephone call with the Turkish-origin football star, wading into a controversy that caused uproar in Germany.
Ozil stunned football at the weekend by announcing he planned never to play again for the national team after criticism he deemed to be racist of a meeting with Erdogan two months ago.
His move has divided opinion in Germany but received warm applause in Turkey, whose government has long campaigned against what Ankara sees as rising Islamophobia in Europe.
"Last night I spoke to Mesut. His attitude in the statement is completely patriotic, it is absolutely praiseworthy behaviour," Erdogan said, quoted by state news agency Anadolu.
"I kiss him on his eyes," Erdogan said, using a Turkish term of affection for a loved one or friend.
"It is not possible to accept this kind of racist, Islamophobic attitude towards a young man who gave and added so much to the success of the German national team. This really cannot be accepted," he added.
- 'Intolerable' -
Ozil, who was born in Germany to Turkish-origin parents, had faced heavy criticism during the World Cup, especially over the controversial photograph with Erdogan in May just one month ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in Turkey.
The Arsenal midfielder, a key member of the squad which won the 2014 World Cup, criticised the German Football Association (DFB) bosses, sponsors and the media.
He lamented a lack of support from DFB president Reinhard Grindel and said "I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish."
"In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose," Ozil, 29, wrote.
But the association said in a statement on Monday that it rejected "the notion that the DFB is associated with racism".
His shock retirement caught Germany head coach Joachim Loew by surprise. "Neither the national coach nor I were informed in advance," Loew's agent Harun Arslan confirmed to German daily Bild.
Fellow German international Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City was also present at the London meeting with Erdogan on the president's visit to Britain, as well as striker Cenk Tosun of Everton who was born in Germany but represents Turkey.
"How will you explain this understanding which will not accept me taking photographs with Turkish-origin Mesut, Ilkay and Cenk Tosun in London? It is intolerable," said Erdogan.
- 'You are not alone' -
In Ozil's ancestral home town of Devrek in the Zonguldak region on the Turkish Black Sea coast, local authorities have changed a giant picture on "Mesut Ozil Avenue" to show the photograph with Erdogan rather than Ozil in his German kit.
"We are against racism, religious discrimination and we condemn those who act in this way," mayor Mustafa Semerci said, according to DHA news agency.
"Dear Mesut, you are not alone. Devrek, Turkey and even the world is with you," he added.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul on Monday congratulated Ozil, saying he had "scored the most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism."
The Turkish Football Federation, whose chief Yildirim Demiroren is a close Erdogan ally, on Tuesday said it condemned Ozil's treatment.
"Every player, no matter whether they are in the public eye or not, has a right to be protected from abuse, discrimination and messages expressing hate."
Ozil, who has now joined the Gunners' pre-season tour in Singapore, on Tuesday posted his first tweet since the furore erupted.
"Preseason work," he wrote simply above a picture of himself in sprint training, without making any reference to the uproar.