LONDON, Strained diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey have taken on a sporting dimension as they bid to host soccer's 2024 European Championship.
Four months before UEFA decides the destination of the tournament, concerns about Turkey's increasingly repressive direction under Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidency have been raised by the head of Germany's soccer federation.
Reinhard Grindel criticized Turkey's authoritarianism after seeing two of his players posing for photos with Erdogan in London. Both Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan play for English clubs and have Turkish roots, and Grindel suspected Erdogan was meddling with "integration efforts" by the German federation, known as the DFB.
When Germany heads to Russia next month to defend its World Cup title, Ozil and Gundogan will be at the heart of the squad. Turkey failed to make the 32-team cut for the World Cup.
But Germany and Turkey will come head-to-head when the UEFA executive committee votes on the Euro 2024 host in September.
"I don't think it's fair that we get them involved in our campaign," Turkish soccer federation vice president Servet Yardimci said in London. "Mr. Erdogan used to be an active football player so he loves having meetings with Turkish football players. He does also meet foreign players in Turkey whenever he has got the time.
"That's one of the reasons why he met them yesterday. To find out how many goals they scored, how they are doing. Football chatting."
Grindel, though, is concerned Ozil and Gundogan are being used by Erdogan as the president seeks to cement his grip on power in a snap election in June.
"The DFB of course respects the special situation for our players with migrant backgrounds," said Grindel, who made the transition from the Bundestag to sports politics. "But football and the DFB stands for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect. Therefore, it is not a good thing that our internationals have let themselves be exploited for his election campaign stunt."
While Grindel was speaking specifically about the Turkish presidential campaign, his words came amid a UEFA bidding contest. This is the first bidding process run by European soccer's governing body where contenders must abide by human rights criteria.
Just as Grindel was speaking out against Erdogan in Germany, his Turkish counterpart on UEFA's ruling executive committee was in London promoting the Euro 2024 bid. It was coincidental that Erdogan was in the British capital at the same time, said Yardimci, a graduate of London Metropolitan University.
Yardimci balks at critics of Turkey, which hosted two major European club finals in the previous decade in Istanbul and has staged international youth soccer tournaments.
"We don't think human rights will be a problem from UEFA's point of view because Turkey is fully compliant," Yardimci said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Turkey has cracked down on dissent online, targeted journalists, activists and politicians, and blocked social media and messaging sites, including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
"This is more of a political area," Yardimci said. "Obviously the Turkish government is doing whatever is necessary to protect its unity and its system in place. There may be areas of shutting down social media and so forth but I don't think this is in breach of Turkey's compliance or commitment to the human rights treaties."
A state of emergency declared by Erdogan after the failed military coup in 2016 was used to crack down on the alleged coup plotters. The emergency powers have been used to arrest other government opponents and forced the closure of media and non-governmental organizations for links to extremist groups.
The detention of German citizens by its NATO ally has contributed to the troubled ties between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdogan.
Without directly mentioning Euro 2024 bidding in his denunciation of Erdogan, Grindel has raised the issue of human rights in Turkey as the UEFA contest intensifies.
"Turkey does suffer from the negative perception," Yardimci said. "2024 will give the opportunity to the UEFA family, to the outside world how Turkey is a fantastic footballing country. The hospitality is legendary in Turkey."
Yardimci said Turkey is an "open society" ready to host the European Championship after three unsuccessful bids, but security is further a stumbling block. Gaziantep is among nine proposed venues despite the U.S. State Department warning against travel to the southern city because of terrorism. The foreign ministries in Germany and Britain advise against all but essential travel to the city, which is 40 miles from the porous border with Syria.
"Turkey is clearing its border areas from these terrorist groups," Yardimci said. "By 2024 I'm sure things will have settled down in the area."
Turkey is hoping UEFA executives take a longer-range view, too, when it comes to judging the country's human rights record.
"I don't think these issues will be influencing their decisions when it comes to voting for this tournament," Yardimci said. "They will look at it from the footballing point of view."
The Germans also want Ozil and Gundogan to look at their meeting with Erdogan from the sporting perspective - and how bad it looks for the world champions. Condemnation of the photo has reignited a prickly debate in Germany about whether people with immigrant backgrounds are sufficiently committed to the country and its values.
The DFB moved to highlight in a statement that it does not doubt the players' commitment to the team or their values.
"It was not our intention to make a political statement with this picture, still less to take part in election campaigning," said Gundogan, who won the Premier League title with Manchester City. "As German national players, we stand by the values of the DFB and are aware of our responsibility."
Even more so given the charged environment as Germany competes with Turkey for the right to stage one of the biggest events in sports.
"Football is our life," Gundogan said, "and not politics."
Source: Voice of America