Mesut Ozil, a World Cup winner with Germany and holder of 92 caps, retired from international duty following a public inquisition over a photo he took with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the buildup to the 2018 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 whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” Ozil said in a statement Sunday. “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t.”
The 29-year-old insisted that the picture “had no political intentions,” and that he only met Erdogan out of respect for “the roots of my ancestors.”
Born in Germany to Turkish immigrants, Ozil was made a scapegoat for Die Mannschaft’s early exit from the World Cup. He called out the local media and Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football association (DFB), for turning an innocent encounter into a tool for right-wing political propaganda.
As pressure mounted, Ozil declined to comment on the now-infamous picture. He was the subject of boos in pre-World Cup friendlies and eventually made the decision to skip media briefings before departing for Russia.
Grindel openly criticised Ozil in the immediate aftermath, saying: “Football and the DFB stand for values that are not sufficiently respected by Mr. Erdogan.”
The picture, which was taken in the days before the Turkish election, was shared on social media by Erdogan’s political party. He eventually won a new five-year mandate with a 53 percent majority that gave him “sweeping new powers,” according to the BBC.
Erdogan has faced allegations of human rights abuses since taking leadership in 2014. Journalists have also faced a government crackdown on their basic freedoms, with the Human Rights Watch reporting in May that more than 170 media members had been detained.
Ozil said his meeting with Erdogan was not “an endorsement of any policies,” and that they only spoke about football.
Several partners ended up dropping Ozil because of the controversy. In the second part of his lengthy statement, the Arsenal playmaker said he could no longer fulfill a commitment he made to immigrant children in his hometown of Gelsenkirchen.
He was particularly vocal about Grindel’s handling of the matter, suggesting the criticism was racially motivated and that it made him feel unwanted.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil said. “This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating to facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society.”