Politics

Man City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and his Turkish roots ahead of Champions League final


It was the photo that had everyone talking.

It was the photo that had German media and politicians in uproar.

It was the photo that showed the strong, albeit slightly controversial, relationship Ilkay Gundogan – one of the greatest German footballers of this generation – has in celebrating his family’s heritage.

It was 2018 and the photo in question had Gundogan and Mesut Ozil – two German-born players who played for the national team but have Turkish roots – pictured next to the polarising head of state Recep Erdogan in London.

Cenk Tosun joined the pair in meeting the Turkish president during his trip to the UK but the photo, shared by Gundogan, was accompanied by the caption: ‘My President’.

Ilkay Gundogan created controversy in 2018 when he posed with Turkey president Recep Erdogan (second right) in London alongside Mesut Ozil (second left) and Cenk Tosun (right)

Ilkay Gundogan created controversy in 2018 when he posed with Turkey president Recep Erdogan (second right) in London alongside Mesut Ozil (second left) and Cenk Tosun (right)

He shared a photo of the pair and labelled him 'My President', causing uproar in Germany

He shared a photo of the pair and labelled him ‘My President’, causing uproar in Germany

Gundogan was subsequently booed during Germany's games in the aftermath of the event

Gundogan was subsequently booed during Germany’s games in the aftermath of the event

This created fury back in Germany, with several politicians and media outlets criticising Gundogan and Ozil for their lack of loyalty to German democratic values, while others interpreted it as a form of political support for Erdogan and his policies ahead of the Turkish general election. 

The pair were even booed when playing for the national team in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.

Gundogan, speaking as eloquently as ever, wasn’t afraid to address the issue as he told reporters at the time: ‘It’s still not over. You could all hear the whistles at us in the last match.

‘It’s never nice. Not for me, not for my team-mates. It’s not an easy situation to cope with.

‘I feel privileged to have grown up in Germany, so it was a heavy blow for me to be portrayed as somebody who isn’t integrated and doesn’t live his life according to German values. 

‘Are we supposed to be impolite to the president of our families’ homeland?Whatever justified criticism there might be, we decided on a gesture of politeness, out of respect for the office of president and for our Turkish roots.

‘It was not our intention to make a political statement with this picture.’

This is a snapshot into Gundogan’s relationship with his family’s homeland after his grandfather moved from Balikesir to the Ruhr region in Germany to work as miner, with his father also growing up in Turkey.

Gundogan clearly views himself as both German and Turkish and is never afraid to portray his roots or speak up on important national issues, maintaining close links to the country. 

For not only is Gundogan hugely popular in Turkey, he is an ambassador for the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Nuri Keskin, a bar owner in the Taksim Square area of Istanbul, told Mail Sport: ‘I really like Gundogan.

‘He’s very popular and it’s great all of the things he does for Turkey.’

Another passer-by agreed and added: ‘Yes, we like Gundogan. He is very good.’ 

Gundogan was born in Germany and grew up in the country, but his family hail from Turkey

Gundogan was born in Germany and grew up in the country, but his family hail from Turkey

Gundogan has many ties to his family's heritage and maintains close links with their birthplace

Gundogan has many ties to his family’s heritage and maintains close links with their birthplace 

Gundogan and his wife Sara Arfaoui got married in 2022 in Dursunbey - where his family grew up -  which is in the southwestern area of Turkish city Balikesir

Gundogan and his wife Sara Arfaoui got married in 2022 in Dursunbey – where his family grew up –  which is in the southwestern area of Turkish city Balikesir 

Gundogan is also known as a highly charitable and kind individual who never shirks philanthropy in times of need.

This has been shown on various occasions, such as the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes earlier this year when he and his wife Sara Arfaoui sent aid supplies to those in need in Turkey, with his father Irfan heading to the country to help ensure these were delivered successfully. 

Furthermore, following deadly wildfires in the summer of 2021, Gundogan promised to plant 5,000 trees in the worst-affected regions to help the recovery effort.

The midfielder also remains extremely close with the hometown of his family, Dursunbey, which is in the southwestern part of Balikesir.

Not only did Gundogan and Arfaoui get married there in 2022, with the 2,000 guests including local dignitaries, but he has extremely close links to the town’s football team, Dursunbey Beledyespor.

Their stadium is named after Gundogan, while he also invited the youth team to meet him before his wedding and he has regularly kept up to date with all their goings-on and sent them messages of support.

To sum up his relationship with his heritage, Gundogan’s father, Irfan, claimed they wanted the wedding to be in Dursunbey because ‘this is where we grew up’. 

Gundogan made his name as a player in Germany with FC Nurnberg and Borussia Dortmund

Gundogan made his name as a player in Germany with FC Nurnberg and Borussia Dortmund

He's been in fine form for City over recent months and is hoping to secure the Treble with them

He’s been in fine form for City over recent months and is hoping to secure the Treble with them

And for the player, he believes he has a duty to acknowledge his family’s history and also to provide inspiration to the next generation.

Speaking in 2018, he told Arab News: ‘My background gives me this responsibility. 

‘So many people, not just Turkish people, but the Muslim community in Germany, I am one of those personalities to try to help.

‘There are people who look up to me, but the young Muslim kids, especially in Germany, they also need those closest to them to show them a good path, give them targets in their life. 

‘I grew up with a lot of these kids and they didn’t have the support I had from my family or friends. Not just in terms of football, but everything else.

‘It’s really hard for them to be successful. The people around you make you the personality you are.’

Gundogan continued: ‘It was not just about sport, but socialising. In Gelsenkirchen, we had Arabs, Turks, Polish and Germans, so it was a mix of people from different origins. Football was the possibility to achieve something. It united us all.

‘Football is not about where you are from, what religion you are, it’s about having fun together, competing together and supporting each other. That made it really easy for myself growing up.’

In the final in Istanbul, he will come up against Hakan Calhanoglu (pictured) - who was also born in Germany but chose to represent the country of his roots, Turkey

In the final in Istanbul, he will come up against Hakan Calhanoglu (pictured) – who was also born in Germany but chose to represent the country of his roots, Turkey

Inter coach Simone Inzaghi joked local fans will be divided between the two stars on show

Inter coach Simone Inzaghi joked local fans will be divided between the two stars on show

This all makes the opportunity for Gundogan to play in a Champions League final against Inter Milan on Saturday night in Turkey so special.

The midfielder has shown time and time again how crucial he is to Manchester City, with team-mate Kyle Walker even joking he turns into ‘prime Zidane’ during the run-in.

His appearance in his family’s homeland will see him come up against national team captain and Inter midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu – who was also born in Germany but chose to represent the country of his roots – and gives local supporters much to be excited about.

A quick walk around the city and you are never far away from hearing chants from Inter and Turkish fans outlining their love of Calhanoglu.

At his pre-match press conference, Inter coach Simone Inzaghi even joked: ‘Turkish fans will be divided. Some for Hakan, some for Ilkay.’

But as Gundogan lines up at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium as City’s captain, he will have supporters far and wide cheering him on – most certainly in Dursunbey – while this final will mean more to him and his family than most.



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