Ashkan Dejagah 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The German Football Association (DFB) on Monday controversially backed Iranian-born star Ashkan Dejagah's decision to opt out of playing in this weekend's Israel versus Germany Under-21 European Championship qualifying match in Tel Aviv due to "personal reasons."
In a DFB statement, the striker, who plays for Bundesliga side Vfb Wolfsburg, asked for "understanding" from the German Football Association that the "reasons are of a very personal nature and lie in my closest family."
However, the German daily Bild quoted Dejagah as saying his refusal "had political reasons."
"Everyone knows I am an Iranian-born German," he said.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has not recognized Israel's right to exist, Iranians are not allowed to travel to Israel and the country's president has famously called for Israel to be wiped off the map.
Although Germany Under-21 coach Dieter Eilts has accepted Dejagah's choice to opt out of Friday's match, DFB president Theo Zwanziger initially criticized the 20-year-old, telling German media over the weekend, "If we start doing things for political reasons, it will be sport itself which loses."
But Zwanziger made a dramatic turnaround on Monday when the DFB released a statement saying the president had agreed that Dejagah did not have to play.
The statement said Zwanziger "respected the decision of the coach... that the player stated reasons which lie in the private sector."
Dejagah has considered playing for Iran rather than Germany at the international level.
The Iranian state news agency IRNA reported that Dejagah's father, Muhammad, said in a recent interview in Berlin that his son "has yet to decide if he wants to play for the national football team of his native country Iran or Germany."
Dejagah established himself early in his career, becoming the youngest player to be signed by Hertha Berlin in 2005.
Since moving to Wolfsburg over the summer, he has become a crucial member of the squad, scoring an 88th minute equalizer in a 2-2 draw with Hamburg on September 29. Wolfsburg is currently in 10th place in the Bundesliga.
On Monday, IRNA said Dejagah had already said, "It was well known beforehand that I won't fly [to Israel]. The coach understood my reasons."
The Israel Football Association was unavailable for comment on Monday, but Ze'ev Seltzer, youth coordinator of the IFA, told Bild he did not accept Dejagah's excuses.
"We can separate between sport and politics," Seltzer said.
German political leaders have also spoken out against Dejagah's decision.
Dr. Friedbert Pflueger, leader of the CDU Party, told Bild it was "completely unacceptable."
"I have already had inquiries from the Iranian Federation," he said. "If he has political reservations, he may not play for a German team."
Pflueger also dismissed any question of Dejagah refusing to play on the basis of security risks, saying, "He is a German citizen. Everything would be done for his security in Israel."
Zwanziger said the decision had not been political.
"We will not accept that a German national player refuses to play in an international match because of his world view," he said in the DFB statement, which referred to "outstanding German-Israeli relations."
Zwanziger said soccer has "always built bridges in the past," adding that it can "dissolve irreconcilably facing points of view."
He is due to arrive in Israel two days before the match to visit "important points in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem."
Zwanziger, Eilts and DFB sports director Matthias Sammer intend to "lay down a wreath to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust" on a hill west of Jerusalem after they visit Yad Vashem.
Zwanziger said he planned to arrange discussions with "top representatives of the Israeli soccer federation" in Tel Aviv on Thursday to "continue and deepen" the connections that German football has felt with Israel.
He said the German Football Association will "follow its social responsibility" by having the German national team play in Israel.