Both Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan received a considerable amount of criticism for the photo they took posing with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just two days before Joachim Low announced Die Mannschaft’s 23-man roster for the World Cup. Both Özil and Gündogan are of Turkish descent and were photographed with Erdoğan ahead of Turkey’s election when he was visiting London, England. The two claimed that the photo was not meant to be a political statement after they received a great deal of backlash from the German public; the German far right in particular.
In an interview with Welt (via Deutsche Welle), DFB general manager, Oliver Bierhoff admitted that the situation could’ve been dealt with more delicately, and that the constant media attention it received might’ve negatively impacted the squad:
I believe that the team wasn’t so bothered about the fact that Mesut and Ilkay were in the photos. But the (media) debate just wouldn’t stop. In hindsight, I would have tried to deal with this issue in a more decisive manner.
He went on to explain in the interview (via the DailyMail) that the DFB would never force a player to do something. Rather, they would try to influence that player(s) to do the right thing that’s in the best interest for all parties involved:
Until now we never had to force national team players to do something but always tried to convince them of something. We did not succeed in that with Mesut and so maybe we should have considered being without him (at the World Cup) on a sporting level. We demand players who go their own way, who make their own statements. We want open and honest statements, not fitted or toned-down statements. But (the) fact is that Mesut, for obvious and specific reasons, could not have said what was demanded from him.
Özil chose not to attend the DFB’s media day when the squad was at its training camp in Austria ahead of the World Cup and Bierhoff admitted that it might’ve been wise to have left Özil out of the World Cup squad entirely. Instead, he was kept on the roster and was one of a handful of players that considerably under-performed at the tournament. He played the full 90 minutes in both losses to Mexico and South Korea after he’d been relegated to the bench for the 2-1 win over Sweden. Gündogan, on the other hand, only clocked 59 minutes in the Sweden match as a result of Sebastian Rudy having to be subbed off due to a broken nose. It most certainly was far from Gündogan’s best performance.
Retrospectively, hearing what Bierhoff had to say certainly makes it seem as if the the whole situation was, at the very least, a distraction amongst the squad, even if it really only effected Özil and Gündogan. Their arguably underwhelming performances were symptomatic of not being 100% mentally focused, but the same could also be said for a number of Germany’s players at the tournament, not just Özil and Gündogan.