Strained diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey have taken on a sporting dimension as they bid to host football’s 2024 European Championship.
Four months before Uefa decides the destination of the tournament, concerns about Turkey’s increasingly repressive direction under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidency have been raised by the head of Germany’s football federation.
Reinhard Grindel criticised Turkey’s authoritarianism after seeing two of his players posing for photos with Mr Erdogan in London.
Both Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan play for English clubs and have Turkish roots, and Mr Grindel suspected Mr Erdogan was meddling with “integration efforts” by the German federation, known as the DFB.
When Germany heads to Russia next month to defend its World Cup title, Ozil and Gundogan will be at the heart of the squad. Turkey failed to make the 32-team cut for the World Cup.
But Germany and Turkey will come head-to-head when the Uefa executive committee votes on the Euro 2024 host in September.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we get them involved in our campaign,” Turkish football federation president Servet Yardimci said in London.
“Mr Erdogan used to be an active football player so he loves having meetings with Turkish football players. He does also meet foreign players in Turkey whenever he has got the time.
“That’s one of the reasons why he met them yesterday. To find out how many goals they scored, how they are doing. Football chatting.”
Mr Grindel, though, is concerned Ozil and Gundogan are being used by Mr Erdogan as the president seeks to cement his grip on power in a snap election in June.
“The DFB of course respects the special situation for our players with migrant backgrounds,” said Mr Grindel, who made the transition from the Bundestag to sports politics.
“But football and the DFB stands for values that Mr Erdogan does not sufficiently respect.
“Therefore, it is not a good thing that our internationals have let themselves be exploited for his election campaign stunt.”
The Germans also want Ozil and Gundogan to look at their meeting with Mr Erdogan from the sporting perspective – and how bad it looks for the world champions.
Condemnation of the photo has reignited a prickly debate in Germany about whether people with immigrant backgrounds are sufficiently committed to the country and its values.
The DFB moved to highlight in a statement that it does not doubt the players’ commitment to the team or their values.
“It was not our intention to make a political statement with this picture, still less to take part in election campaigning,” said Gundogan, who won the Premier League title with Manchester City.
“As German national players, we stand by the values of the DFB and are aware of our responsibility.”
Even more so given the charged environment as Germany competes with Turkey for the right to stage one of the biggest events in sports.
“Football is our life,” Gundogan said, “and not politics.”