Arsenal's German midfielder Mesut Özil has quit the national team, saying he is not accepted in Germany and triggering a furious debate over racism.
Mr Özil, who is of Turkish origin, said on Twitter that he was treated as "different" despite winning the World Cup in 2014 and being awarded prizes for his contributions to integration in Germany.
“Despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society,” Mr Özil wrote. “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
The 29-year-old accused the head of the German Football Association (DFB), Reinhard Grindel, of discriminating against him because of his mixed heritage. Mr Grindel had previously singled out Mr Özil over the national team's humiliating exit from the World Cup.
“People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world that has many players from dual-heritage families.”
Mr Özil came under fire when he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May at an event in London and posed for photos with him.
In his statement, the player defended that decision. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish.”
Meeting with Mr Erdogan, who is often vilified in Germany for his autocratic style of government and disregard for civil liberties, wasn’t about politics, said the footballer. But about “me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.”
Mr Özil says he received threatening phone calls and a tirade of abuse on social media and accused some German newspapers of trying to turn public opinion against him by blaming him for the World Cup defeat.
While accepting of criticism over his footballing performance, he also said that he would not accept being blamed for a bad World Cup because of his "dual-heritage and a simple picture".
Condemnation over his meeting with Mr Erdogan overshadowed the team’s preparations for the tournament, with Mr Grindel calling on Mr Özil to make a public statement and implying that if he didn't his future in the national team would be at risk.
Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul tweeted on Monday: “I congratulate Mesut Ozil who by leaving the national team has scored the most beautiful goal against the virus of fascism.”
In a statement released on Monday afternoon, the DFB rejected the accusations of racism.
“The DFB has been heavily involved in efforts to promote integration in Germany for many years,” it said. Adding that the association Mr Özil's departure. "But that doesn’t change the determination of our association to continue this successful integration work with energy and deep conviction.”
But Mr. Özil’s comments rekindled a long-running debate about why Germany is failing to integrate the three million people of Turkish origin living there — half a century after the first Turks arrived as “guest workers”.
“It’s an alarm signal if a great German footballer like Mesut Özil feels no longer wanted in his country because of racism,” said Justice Minister Katarina Barley.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer declined to comment but praised his achievements and said she respected his decision. “Merkel appreciates Mesut Özil, he is a great footballer, he did much for the national team,” she said.
But many newspapers strongly critcised the footballer, in particular tabloid Bild which accused him of “whining” and noted that his statement was written in English rather than German.
“Not a critical word about the despot Erdogan, not a word of self-criticism. Instead, angry attacks against DFB President Grindel whom he wants to brand as a racist and evidently wants to topple. Anyone who thinks like that about Germany cannot play for Germany,” Bild wrote.
Many German politicians also criticised Mr. Özil.
“No one has to deny their country of origin,” said Thomas Strobl, the interior minister of Baden-Württemberg, a member of Mrs Merkel’s conservatives. “But I would also wish for a clear commitment to one’s new homeland. And I would also wish for a clear commitment to our values — especially towards someone like Mr Erdogan.”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “I don’t think the case of a multimillionaire living and working in England says much about Germany’s ability to integrate people.”
Annette Widmann-Mauz, the government’s integration commissioner, said: “Even though I understand family roots, players for the national football team must accept criticism if they make themselves available for election campaign purposes. At the same time this justified criticism mustn’t lead to a blanket denigration of players from migrant backgrounds.”
In a country where nationality remains closely entwined with ethnicity, this episode could make other immigrants feels unwanted.
The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said shortly after he took office in March that “Islam doesn’t belong to Germany”. Some five million Muslims live in the country. Mrs Merkel contradicted him, but his views are widely shared.
Mr Özil’s position has however been weakened by that smiling photo with Mr Erdogan, under whom Turkey’s relations with Germany have deteriorated and hit rock bottom with the arrest of German nationals last year, including a newspaper reporter.
Cem Özdemir, a former leader of the German Greens party who has Turkish roots, said Mr Özil had failed to be a role model for Turks in Germany who wanted democracy in their country of origin. “What Özil is now saying is deeply regrettable. It’s helping those who rejected democracy here as well as there.”