Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s involvement in the ongoing row about a photo they had taken with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan could influence Germany head coach Joachim Low’s team selection, according to Oliver Bierhoff.
“Jogi [Low] does not make any populist decisions just to satisfy someone, he rather looks at the sporting side of things,” Bierhoff told Bild when asked about a possible influence on the starting formation. “But [the scandal] could as well be a small aspect [in the decision-making process].”
Premier League duo Ozil and Gundogan, both born in the German city of Gelsenkirchen to Turkish parents, had a picture taken with Erdogan during the Turkish president’s visit to London in May.
The photo was released on social media one day before the announcement of Germany’s preliminary World Cup squad and sparked a row that led to both players being whistled at during the nation’s two pre-World Cup friendlies against Austria and Saudi Arabia — as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel commenting on it.
The players have handled the issue differently. While Ozil has not addressed it in public, and, according to Bierhoff, will not talk to media at the World Cup, Gundogan talked to selected press during Germany’s media day last week.
The photo of the two Germany internationals and the Turkish president has led to a major discussion in German society on the integration of Turkish immigrants amid tension between the two states, amplified by the imprisonment of prominent journalist Deniz Yucel, who was locked away for over a year from February 2017.
“It’s obvious that the discussion over integration should not end here, and also not that over the photo,” Bierhoff added. “We must continue to face this issue and account for it. We have a lot of players in our academies with a migrant background. This goes far beyond the Erdogan photo.
“But my request is only to allow the players to focus on the tournament during the World Cup.”
Bierhoff’s sentiment was echoed by Germany keeper Manuel Neuer. He told Gazzetta dello Sport that the situation is “bothering the whole nation” and not just the two players.
“We’re footballers and we want to think about football, essentially the World Cup, which is what matters,” he added.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.