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How a soccer jersey sparked the latest Germany-Turkey spat

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan in London on May 13. (Kayhan Ozer/Turkish Presidential Palace via Reuters)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's semiprofessional soccer career ended in 1982. But the 64-year-old still loves the sport so much that he makes occasional appearances on the field at ceremonial matches in Turkey — including one in 2014 during which he somewhat suspiciously managed to score three goals in just 15 minutes.

So it's no surprise that, during a visit to London over the weekend, the Turkish leader sought out German-born players of Turkish descent — one who plays for Turkey and two who play for Germany — for a photo op.

The German players, Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan and Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, posed with the controversial Turkish president and handed him signed jerseys from their clubs. On the shirt Gundogan handed to Erdogan, he also wrote an inscription: "With great respect for my president."

None of it went over well in Germany. Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German Football Association, or DFB, the sport's governing body in Germany, said that "football and the DFB stand for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect." Joachim Löw, the coach of Germany's national team, said that “it was made clear to [the players] that it was an unfortunate action."

It's only the latest spat between Germany and Turkey since a failed coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016. Since that attempt, some 160,000 people have been detained in Turkey as part of a wide crackdown on civil society. Erdogan has blamed the coup on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive, U.S.-based cleric. Gulen denies any role in the coup, but Erdogan's government has purged people it suspects of Gulenist sympathies. In doing so, Turkey has silenced media outlets, dismissed civil servants, arrested professors and passed a referendum expanding Erdogan's presidential authority even further.

Gundogan's message also touched on the sometimes-fraught topic of Turkish-German identity. Germany has been home to a sizable Turkish population since the 1960s — that number now reaches into the millions — but only since a 1999 law has German citizenship been fairly easily available to most people of Turkish descent, even those born in the country. Many German Turks say they still face discrimination because of their ethnicity and religion.

Beatrix von Storch, the deputy leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, was unsurprisingly critical.

"Why is Gundogan playing for the German national team when he recognizes Erdogan as his president?" she asked. But Cem Ozdemir, a former Green Party leader of Turkish descent, also chided Gundogan. "The president of an international German footballer is called Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his chancellor Angela Merkel and his parliament the Bundestag, the headquarters of which are in Berlin and not Ankara," he said, according to The Local.

Gundogan says he didn't intend to make a political statement, and Germany's soccer officials and leaders seem content to accept his gesture to Erdogan as an innocent mistake. Merkel's spokesman Steffen Steibert also responded to the photos, saying "The players, who as national players have to set an example, were in a situation that invited misunderstanding."

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