BERLIN/DORTMUND (REUTERS) - Two top German football players made a mistake by posing for a photo with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman and national football coach Joachim Loew said on Tuesday (May 15), amid concerns over Turkey's human rights record.
The pictures, taken in London on Sunday and published by Erdogan's ruling AK Party, show Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan standing next to the president, all beaming, and giving him shirts from their English clubs - Arsenal and Manchester City.
Gundogan's shirt had "With respect for my president" written on it. He later said it was not the intention of the two players, who have Turkish roots, to make a political statement or be drawn into campaigning for Turkey's elections next month.
The photos unleashed a storm of criticism from lawmakers across Germany's political spectrum and the DFB football federation, all of whom argued that Erdogan does not sufficiently respect German values.
"From the side of the federation, it was made clear to them that it was an unfortunate action. When you play for Germany you represent German values," Loew said at a news conference to name his provisional squad for the World Cup in Russia. Both Ozil and Gundogan are in that squad.
Erdogan is a keen soccer fan and as a young man played the game to a semi-professional level.
Ties between the European Union and Turkey have deteriorated over the past two years amid a crackdown by Erdogan's government on suspected supporters of a failed military coup in July 2016.
Turkey has shut down media outlets, detained 160,000 people and sacked nearly the same number of public employees. It says the crackdown is needed for security reasons.
POLITICAL IDIOTS, FOOTBALL GENIUSES
DFB soccer federation President Reinhard Grindel, who said earlier the players had been used by Erdogan in his campaign for the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, said he believed the two knew they had made a mistake.
Merkel's spokesman also weighed into the debate, welcoming Gundogan's statement which also made clear that the players stood by German values.
"The players, who as national players have to set an example, were in a situation that invited misunderstanding," said the spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
A commentary in top-selling Bild, which ran the photos on its front page, said: "The main question is whether the two German national players still fit into our German team. I say yes. They are political idiots, but football geniuses." Loew said he understood that players with roots in other countries sometimes "have two hearts beating".
"I have known both players a long time, they have done a lot for integration. It is a lesson for them we can discuss again in training," he said.
TFF Turkish Football Federation Vice President Servet Yardimci denied the players had become part of the election campaign.
"We have to be fair, there is no intention whatsoever to get them involved," he told a briefing in London on Monday.