After being booed by Germany fans last weekend, Ilkay Gundogan admits being affected by the criticism he and Mesut Ozil received in the wake of their controversial meeting with Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Some of the reactions hit me, especially the personal insults,” Manchester City star Gundogan told reporters at Germany's World Cup training camp in northern Italy.
“I understand that not everyone had to like it.
“I'm always open to criticism, everyone has their own opinion, that's why we have freedom of expression.
“That's what I stand for, and that's exactly why I feel privileged to be born and raised in Germany, but I also don't want to insulted.”
Germany kick-offs its World Cup campaign against Mexico in Moscow on June 17 having also drawn Sweden and South Korea in Group F.
However, 'die Mannschaft' is winless in their last five games after losing 2-1 at Austria on Saturday, when Gundogan and Ozil were booed early on by travelling German fans in Klagenfurt.
Gundogan hopes things improve in Leverkusen on Friday when the world champion aim for a moral-boosting win in a friendly against Saudi Arabia, which plays Russia in the World Cup opener on June 14.
“You're used to being whistled by opposing fans, but when your own fans do it, that's hard to live with -- let's see how it is in Leverkusen,” said Gundogan.
Last month, he and Arsenal midfielder Ozil unwittingly stirred up tensions between Ankara and Berlin by posing for pictures with Erdogan during his three-day visit to Britain ahead of the Turkey elections on June 24.
German Football Association (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel said the pair had allowed themselves to be “manipulated” and there were even calls to drop them from the World Cup squad.
Yildirim Demiroren, the boss of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) fired back that Grindel's comments were “slanderous” and had heightened tensions with Turkey and Germany both vying to host the Euro 2024 finals.
German politicians laid into the footballers, especially after Gundogan presented Erodgan with a Man City shirt, signed “to my president”, which was immediately pounced upon by Germany's political right.
“Why does Gundogan play for the German national team, if he precognises Erdogan as his president?” tweeted AfD politician Beatrix von Storch.
However, Gundogan says the criticism was unfair to both him and Ozil, who has stopped commenting on the controversy.
“In recent years, we have done a lot to promote integration in Germany,” said Gundogan, also referring to Ozil.
“We don't just have the Turkish side in us because of our parents and our families.
“We were born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. The city has a very high share of immigrants.
“It was therefore a deep blow for me that it is presented in such a way that we are not integrated and would not live by German values.
“We were there because Turkish-born footballers from the Premier League were invited to a foundation event and the photo was taken there.”
Gundogan and Ozil even met Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin in the wake of the controversy before holding clear-the-air talks with Grindel and senior German FA (DFB) figures.
“The experience (the fall-out) wasn't easy, as, because of our Turkish roots, we still have very strong connections to Turkey,” said Gundogan.
“But that doesn't mean that we have ever said that Mr Steinmeier is not our president or Mrs Merkel is not our Chancellor.
“It was never about making a political statement.”
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