Mesut Ozil peers out of an aeroplane window to watch his flight descend upon Istanbul. A Fenerbahce scarf hangs around his neck as he places a hand on his heart when the wheels touch the runway. The 32-year-old German is all smiles in the video he posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday, as the prospect of playing for the club he supported as a boy ensures his “dreams come true”.
But most importantly, in the Turkish capital, Ozil will get to ‘play’.
The former Arsenal midfielder of seven years had withered in the squad, having not played a match since his assist helped the club claim a 1-0 win over West Ham United in March 2020. He hadn’t even featured on the substitute bench during this period. And this, despite the fact that he was once the club’s most expensive signing, and, till Tuesday, Arsenal’s highest-paid player.
The deterioration in relations between the player and the club has led to him, a free agent, making a move to the country of his ancestors, where Germany’s 2014 World Cup winner hopes to revive his footballing career.
Why is this move significant for both Ozil and Arsenal?
For Ozil, quite simply, he will finally get a chance to play regularly. For Arsenal, they got to offload a player considered expensive dead weight.
Ozil had not been a popular figure in the Arsenal boardroom for a while now. Through the contract he signed in January 2018, he became the club’s highest-ever paid footballer, earning a whopping GBP 350,000 (over Rs 3.5 crore) per week. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he refused to accept a 12.5 per cent pay cut.
On the pitch too, he’d fallen out of favour with manager Mikel Arteta — who was once Ozil’s teammate at the club.
Arteta’s philosophy dictates that everybody lends a hand when the team is attacking or defending. The defence is the first line of attack, and attack is the first line of defence, so to speak. Ozil, however, for all his skill and calibre as an attacker, is not very defensive-minded, and struggled to fit into the manager’s vision.
“I will have everyone 120 per cent committed,” Arteta had said in an interview with Arsenal Magazine in 2016. “That’s the first thing. If not, you don’t play for me. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work. And when it’s time to have fun, then I’m the first one to do it. But that commitment is vital.”
There has been no doubt about the German midfielder’s quality, but his work rate has often come under scrutiny. After a few injuries and a subsequent drop in form, Ozil was dropped for a string of matches in December 2018 by former Gunners manager Unai Emery, who questioned the player’s motivation.
Did Ozil speaking up against China’s alleged persecution of Uighurs bother Arsenal?
When Ozil published a poem, in December 2019, on social media criticising China’s alleged persecution of Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in that country — Arsenal publicly distanced itself from the player’s sentiments.
“Regarding the comments made by Mesut Ozil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” read a club statement. “The content published is Ozil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
Curiously, the German was not the first player from the club to have made a political statement. Just a day before Ozil’s post, Spanish defender Hector Bellerin took to Twitter encouraging British citizens, ahead of the general elections, to go and vote. At the same time, he took a dig at Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who eventually won the elections.
“Young people across the world have a chance to change what the future can be. Today’s the chance for all the British people to influence what your future & those living here holds. #F***Boris #GoVote,” read the message.
Arsenal did not issue a statement regarding Bellerin’s stance.
Was this Ozil’s first brush with politics?
No. in May 2018, Ozil and fellow German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan — both of Turkish descent — posed with Turkish President Recep Erdogan during his visit to London. The photograph elicited a great deal of backlash against the footballers in Germany, as debates raged over dual-citizenship.
Interestingly, Ozil was given the Bambi Award, a prestigious media accolade for being, as reported by Reuters, “a prime example of successful integration into German society.”
Amidst the criticism that followed after, Germany was knocked out of the 2018 World Cup, Ozil published a long statement regarding the incident, claiming the photograph with Erdogan was only a matter of him “respecting the highest office of my family’s country.”
He went further to criticise German media for blaming the national team’s exit in Russia on his Turkish background.
“But what I can’t accept are German media outlets reportedly blaming my dual heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.”
Eventually, in the series of posts, he claimed that members of the German federation indulge in racial discrimination, and said that he no longer wished to play for the national team.
“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” read his post.
“I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t.”
A year later, Erdogan stood as best man at Ozil’s wedding