Mesut Özil - From National Hero to National Villain
One of the most iconic quotes from the Batman Dark Knight trilogy was from Harvey Dent
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Such has become the story of Mesut Özil, a former World Cup winner with Germany who has now retired from international football. The 30-year-old cited racism and disrespect from the media as well as the DFB, the German Football Association, in particular, the head of the association, Reinhard Grindel.
Racism is not exclusive to any one country and some disgruntled fans look for the sleaziest of excuses to blame players for bad performances. From attacking their heritage to past connections to clubs, modern fans and the media don't think twice before criticizing a player for failure in any tournament.
Mesut Özil had been voted Germany's player of the year for five years in a row but after the World Cup, he was made a scapegoat for the disappointing performance by the defending champions. Fans were quick to blame Mesut Özil for the failure of the Germans at Russia.
This blame was obviously sparked by Özil's meeting with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Bayern Munich's president, Uli Hoeness quickly joined in.
“For me, Mesut Özil has been a poor excuse for a footballer for years,” he said. “He should ask himself when he last won a tackle.”
But perhaps, the President should ask his player, Thomas Mueller, when he last made a real impact in a game. Often criticised for not tracking back and having poor work-rate, Mesut Özil had 20 more touches than the Bayern player and had more control over the game, making nearly twice the number of passes.
So how did the national hero of a German team that hit all the high notes drop so low that he is protested against and receives criticism from those who were his greatest admirers?
Let us first look into the beginnings of the player Mesut Özil.
The early years of Mesut Özil
Özil’s grandfather moved from Turkey to Germany as a Gastarbeiter/immigrant in the 1970s, settling in Gelsenkirchen, in the industrial Ruhr, where Mesut was born in 1988. He began his football career at the age of 12 when he went to Rot-Weiss Essen for tryouts.
Young Mesut Özil was seen as undersized, not good at headers and not good in defence. The scouts were mildly impressed by him but took him into the academy. However, the transition was not so easy for young Özil, he barely left the Turkish neighbourhood he lived in and took time to adapt to the German culture.
Travelling to the Rot-Weiss Essen ground 10 miles away felt like travelling to another world. Occasionally he’d miss practices, and club directors would find him back at his local park playing with friends.
His father, Mustafa, was a controlling figure. While the coach gave instructions to Özil in German, his father shouted a different set of instructions in Turkish from the other end of the pitch. Conflicted, Özil faded into the shadows. But his determination and heart remained the same.
The turning point came in a game against Schwartz-Weiss Essen, the local rivals. Mesut called his manager, a former policeman and told him, “We have to win. Tell me what I have to do.”
The next day during the game, Ozil lined up a free-kick 35 yards from the goal as the opposing goalie taunted him. “He can’t score from there. We don’t need a wall.” Instead of dinking the ball into the box, Ozil smashed it past the flailing keeper into the back of the net, then jogged back across the halfway line, silently.
A new aspect was added to Mesut Özil's game, he had found confidence and discipline. Schalke 04 were initially uninterested in the youngster, but Schalke's youth director, Bobo Menze, was struck by how well he controlled the ball and how he made complex passes look effortless.
And so he was signed and Mesut Özil joined the famous academy out of which numerous talented players have grown. Only 17-year-old at the time, Mesut Özil was ambitious and driven. In his first conversation with the Under-19 coach, Norbert Elgert, he meekly said, “I want to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona and then a Premier League team.”
Deployed as a playmaker, Mesut Özil showed his attacking prowess and creativity. In his first season in Bundesliga, he finished with three goals and fifteen assists. While the team finished tenth, they still had something to celebrate when Mesut Özil scored the winning goal in the DFB Pokal final against Bayern Leverkusen to lift the trophy in Berlin.
After two seasons with Schalke, Özil attracted attention from various clubs including Stuttgart, Hannover 69 and Werder Bremen. He was seen as 'the next big thing'. Werder Bremen won the race to his signature as they signed him for a reported fee of €5 million.
The next season was a key season for the German as he scored 9 goals and provided 17 assists in 31 appearances. He was recognised by the German national team and went to Africa for the 2010 World Cup.
An amazing World Cup campaign placing third with the German team saw Mesut Özil being scouted by Real Madrid. He was initially a back-up for Kaka, who was undergoing injury. The main question pronged by the media was "Can the mercurial German fill the void left by one of the most legendary football players of all-time?" and much like he usually does, Mesut Özil answered his critics with actions rather than words.
He finished his first season at Real Madrid with 25 assists, the highest for any player in any major European competition that season. Mourinho saw something special in the playmaker as well and gave him the no.10 jersey. Mesut Özil was convinced that he would be the star of the Madrid midfield for years to come and often told in his interviews that he wants to end his career at the Santiago Bernabeu.
His commitment to the club pulled out performances in many big games including numerous El Classicos, he was nominated for the Ballon d'Or and was the youngest player to feature in the Top 10 for the UEFA Best Player in Europe award.
But as seen many times before, working in Real Madrid can be a tough task. The fans can be hostile and the Board can be ruthless. Club legends like Casillas can be replaced in seconds, so what was the guarantee of Özil's position in Los Blancos.
Luka Modric was signed from Tottenham and seen as Özil's replacement but Özil looked forward to the competition and proved that he was the best midfielder Real Madrid had with 29 assists through the season, more than any player in Europe's top 5 leagues.
His move to Arsenal on the deadline day of the 2013 summer transfer window shocked the world and many players were angered by his move including Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese deemed Özil as one of the best players in the World and a player who knew Ronaldo's movement and supplied numerous balls that he could place in the back of the net.
A second nomination for Ballon d'Or in 2013 and a place in the UEFA team of the year was a sign of the world-class player that he was. However, his first two seasons at Arsenal were forgettable despite winning two FA Cups in a row. But during the 2015-16 season was when Mesut Özil took off having arguably the best season of his in Arsenal colours providing 19 assists, a record only bettered by Thierry Henry. Many fans believe that he could have broken record had it not been for some woeful finishing by the forwards.
Fast forward to 2018, Mesut Özil has become the poster boy for Arsenal. Wearing the no.10 jersey, he is the highest paid player in Arsenal earning nearly £300,000 a week. Playing under a new manager in Unai Emery, Mesut Özil seems to have found his rhythm once again scoring twice this season.
He is also seen as a leader. One of the five players to be named a captain, Özil has already made a huge impact this season. Be it on the flank or centrally, The German has provided silky through balls and a real threat through set pieces. While many say Özil is past his prime, he might be heading into the best years of his life with the gunners.
Mesut Özil and Germany - a tie made in heaven
Germany has developed into a multicultural land over many years. The German community includes nearly 3 million Turkish-Germans. However, they are alienated from the politics of the country and subject to discrimination. The contrast between the countries is not much but the Turkish-Germans continue to be oppressed and not many fancy Özil, as they see him as unpatriotic.
While at Schalke, Ozil was called up to play for the German under-19, then under-21 teams. The next logical step was the German senior team. However, because of his lineage, the Turkish national squad was also pursuing him.
Eligible to play for either side before his first official senior game, he returned to his family's apartment in Gelsenkirchen for advice. But like him, they were torn. His mother and older sister encouraged him to honour his family’s origins, while his father and brother advocated for Germany.
He decided to play for Germany and was in the Germany Under-21 side that won the Under-21 European Championship after thrashing England in the finals. The immense talent shown by the Werder Bremen midfielder gave him a spot in the 2010 World Cup side travelling to South Africa.
He was a pivotal figure for the Germans, starting every game of the tournament. He was deployed as a false 10. His elegance on the ball and creativity helped him control the game, stitching passes from one side of the pitch to another, Özil glided the ball to dangerous areas and created numerous chances for Germany, only at the age of 21.
After the 4-0 destruction of Australia, then Everton midfielder Tim Cahill called him the devastating factor and was left awestruck by the way the 21-year-old split open the defence. A third-place finish was not the worse for Die Mannschaft. Mesut was one of ten players nominated for the Golden Ball.
Mesut Özil made his second World Cup appearance in 2014. The World Cup in Brazil saw the playmaker shunted to a different position on the left flank. Yet he was able to make an equally important contribution to the team from the left as Germany made history by being the first European team to lift the World Cup on South American land.
He came to the rescue with a late winner in their Round-of-16 knockout match against Algeria where Germany won 2-1 after a 119th-minute winner from their no.8. Özil was criticised for his performance in the 7-1 win against Brazil but still had 55 touches, created 2 chances and assisted Sami Khedira's goal.
He concluded the tournament as the leader in passes completed in the final-third (171), was ranked joint-second in chances created (17), behind only Lionel Messi (23), and ranked second overall in possessions won in the final-third (so much for not putting in tackles).
A deserved World Cup winner, Mesut Özil led the German team with his creativity and crossing accuracy with an impressive tally of goals from the likes of Mueller, Klose and Schweinsteiger.
Özil has also taken part in two European Championships with the German team with the 2012 Euros being the more successful. In the qualification stages of the tournament, Özil scored five goals and made seven assists to help Germany top their group. He also grabbed two 'man of the match' awards for his performance in the tournament, was the joint-assist provider of the tournament and was named in the team of the tournament.
Being named German player of the year five times in a row, Özil has assisted 33 goals since his debut in 2009. On top of this, he has scored 23 more goals in 92 times he has played for Germany. But instead of receiving respect and plaudits for his consistent performances in international tournaments, he received criticism and hatred which forced him to retire.
The divorce from the German team
Germany walked into the 2018 World Cup in Russia as defending champions. But much like the past two editions of the World Cup, the defending champions left the tournament in the Group stages itself after winning only one of their three group matches. The entire country was shocked and all attention soon shifted to one man - Mesut Özil.
The Arsenal midfielder was singled out as one of the main factors behind Germany's terrible performance. But the fans based their accusations more on the fact that he met the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan nearly a month before the World Cup.
The Turkish ties of Özil that were completely ignored when he won the World Cup in 2014 or played a pivotal role in Germany's 2012 Euro campaign were now seen as toxic to the team. Protests took off on the street to drop the no.10 and chaos consumed as the 29-year-old received death threats and was criticised by many.
However, stats suggest that Özil was, by far, not the cause of Germany's downfall. He had a chances-per-game ratio of 5.5, the highest for any player throughout the campaign. While veterans such as Mueller, Khedira, Boateng, Hummels and even Neuer were much below their usual form.
Neuer charged up the field in order to get the Germans an important winner but, in turn, left the German goal wide open. Tottenham's Heung Min Son took advantage of this and scored the winner for South Korea leaving Germany at the bottom of their group.
Following this debacle, Mesut Özil took the decision to retire from International Football. He wrote in his statement
"I am German when we win but an immigrant when we lose".
The 30-year-old went on to describe the racism he faced following his meeting with the Turkish president and the double standards shown by the German Football Association as they did not take any action against Lothar Matthaus (an honorary German national team captain) when he met with another world leader days before Mesut announced his retirement.
Various immigrants settle in various European countries in search of jobs or due to wars in the past century. Each country has various cultures and races which should be respected and treated with equality. However, Germany's Islamaphobes have once again shown their belief of superiority with rampant acts of racism.
Germany is not the only country that suffers but the World Cup champions, France was also subject to racism. Their squad was called an 'African squad' and the cultures of the top players of the World Cup was questioned.
Since the retirement of Mesut Özil, Germany have failed to win any of their competitive matches, drawing one and losing two. This is the first time that the German National Team has lost six games in a calendar year. In their 3-0 loss against the Netherlands, there was a clear lack of creativity from the centre of the park and it was crystal clear that Özil was a huge miss.
Löw has tried to get in contact with the 30-year-old ever since his retirement, but Özil refuses to come back. While some including former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger feel this is a huge mistake as Özil will no longer be motivated to perform at club level as well, some feel that this will finally allow Özil to thrive in London and take Arsenal to the glory that has been missing for the past decade. Only time will tell what happens.
As for the German team, they have a relegation battle ahead of them in the UEFA League of Nations with all their remaining games must-win matches. With Löw on the verge of being sacked, Mesut Özil continues to train hard in London and play under his coach, Unai Emery. Germany's xenophobic attitude to players and refusal to admit their own faults has once again cost them. Many immigrant Germans continue to face racism in their day-to-day life and a Turkish hero in Mesut Özil is seen as a villain in Germany, even though he won the World Cup for Germany after a 24-year wait.
In 1922, Albert Einstein said in a speech in Paris:
“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”