By Karolos Grohmann
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Germany should have considered leaving midfielder Mesut Ozil out of the World Cup squad following the furore caused by the player's photo with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff has said.
Ozil, a key member of the 2014 World Cup-winning side, and team mate Ilkay Gundogan, both of Turkish descent, had to deal with a barrage of criticism at home after they were pictured with Erdogan in London in May and the affair overshadowed their tournament preparation.
The still-reigning world champions went out in the group stage in Russia after a string of lacklustre performances for their earliest tournament exit in 80 years.
Ozil started in their first group match, a shock 1-0 loss to Mexico and was a shadow of his creative self from four years ago when he helped Germany win their fourth World Cup.
He was dropped for their last-gasp win over Sweden but returned to the starting line-up for their final group match against South Korea but made no impact in a 2-0 defeat that sealed their elimination.
"Until now we never had to force national team players to do something but always tried to convince them of something," Bierhoff said in an interview with Die Welt newspaper on Friday.
"We did not succeed in that with Mesut and so maybe we should have considered to be without him (at the World Cup) on a sporting level."
Gundogan responded at the time with a statement, explaining his position and saying it was not his intention to create a political issue with the photo.
Ozil, however, has never commented on the issue even after meeting German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and stayed away from a media day in the team's pre-tournament training camp in Italy.
Both players were jeered in warm-up games ahead of the World Cup.
"We demand player who go their own way, who make their own statements. We want open and honest statements, not fitted or toned-down statements," Bierhoff added.
"But (the) fact is that Mesut, for obvious and specific reasons, could not have said what was demanded from him."
Many fans and politicians in Germany were angered by the photos showing the players beaming while presenting Erdogan with shirts from their Premier League clubs - Ozil's Arsenal and Gundogan's English champions Manchester City.
Gundogan called Erdogan "my president" in a message.
The photographs also unleashed a storm of criticism from lawmakers across Germany's political spectrum and the country's football federation, all of whom argued that Erdogan does not sufficiently respect German values.
"I think the fact that Mesut and Ilkay took the photos did not bother the team but the debate was ongoing. In hindsight I would have tried to settle this matter even clearer," Bierhoff said.
Ties between the European Union and Turkey have deteriorated over the past two years amid a crackdown by Erdogan's government on suspected supporters of a failed military coup in July, 2016.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Christian Radnedge)