BERLIN (Reuters) - German Football Association (DFB) head Reinhard Grindel on Thursday said he should have made clearer that racism is unacceptable after midfielder Mesut Ozil quit the national team citing “racism and disrespect” over his Turkish roots.
Ozil, who plays for English Premier League club Arsenal, was criticized for having his photograph taken with Turkey’s authoritarian President Tayyip Erdogan in May.
Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, a team mate of Turkish descent who also posed with Erdogan, were jeered by German fans in warm-up games before the World Cup in Russia.
Grindel rejected Ozil’s accusations that the DFB had been racist but said he regretted the photograph had been misused to justify “racist words”.
“In retrospect, as president I should have clearly said what is obvious for me personally and for us as an association, namely that any form of racism is unbearable, unacceptable and intolerable,” he said in a statement.
The 29-year-old’s decision to quit triggered a public debate in Germany about its relations with its largest immigrant community. Ozil was a key member of the team that won the 2014 World Cup and was voted German Player of the Year a record five times in public ballots.
A DeutschlandTrend poll showed only 14 percent of Germans blamed the DFB for the affair, though 47 percent held Ozil and the DFB equally responsible.
Erdogan has said the treatment of Ozil was racist and unacceptable.
Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaker of parliament and one of Germany’s most senior politicians, was highly critical of the DFB, telling the RND newspaper group it was a “shame” it had let the Erdogan photo affair blow up as it had.
“A clever person could and should have stopped all of that happening,” he said, adding that footballers, being so young, often needed guidance.
“As a football fan I’m sad that Ozil’s era in the national jersey ended like this,” he said. “As a politician, I regret that a pile of mistakes and misunderstanding has harmed integration so. But that’ll be overcome with time.”
Ozil said Grindel had blamed him for Germany’s group stage elimination from this year’s World Cup, their earliest exit from the tournament in 80 years, and considered him a German when the national team won but an immigrant when the side lost.
Grindel said the personal criticism had affected him.
“I feel even more sorry for my colleagues, the many volunteers and staff at the DFB caught up (in accusations of) racism,” he said. “I decisively reject this - both for me personally and for the association.”
He said he and the DFB believed in diversity, solidarity, and non-discrimination and promised the DFB would use the debate stoked by Ozil’s departure as an opportunity to redouble its integration efforts.
He also said the DFB would do a post mortem of the team’s poor performance in Russia and added it hoped to win the bid to host the Euro 2024 tournament - for which Turkey is also bidding. UEFA will hold a meeting on Sept. 27 to choose between them.
Reporting by Michelle Martin, additional reporting by Thomas Escritt, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Toby Davis