Not many soccer teams have a genius like him in their squad. But despite his outstanding class, offensive midfielder Mesut Ozil splits the nation like no other in the 2014 world champions squad.
In Germany, millions of soccer fans and pundits are stuck in a controversial debate about the value of the 27-year old Arsenal player with Turkish roots. As the German team next Saturday faces its old rival Italy in its most challenging match at Euro 2016 to date, the “get rid of him” attitude is countered by his admirers, saying “never take him off the pitch”.
Ozil is the unloved one in Loew’s squad. His technical abilities are deeply respected, his brilliant passes up front produce “Ohs” and “Ahs” every now and then, but deep mistrust follows German-born Ozil like a sinister shadow. He was rewarded with benevolent comments after his 98.5 per cent pass rate in the Northern Ireland match (1-0), but was condemned right after as he missed a penalty against Slovakia (3-0).
It’s a case of either or with Ozil as the Arsenal midfielder constantly goes from one extreme to the other. Many doubt his value for the German team despite coach Loew being one of his most loyal admirers. While keeper Manuel Neuer stands for world class goal-keeping, central defender Jerome Boateng (both Bayern Munich) for rock solid defense, Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) for machine-like passing and game changing passes and Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich) for unpredictable play, Ozil is regarded as not being tough enough. “Everyone has to take things as they are, but when I take a look at the statistic sheets we get after the games, I can see I’m nearly always among the best five in every game,” Ozil says.
For many his game in the national team is an unraveled secret other than at his club FC Arsenal, where he delivers perfect assists in nearly every game. In fact Ozil’s national-job has no clear profile, he is the man between the lines, always moving and regarded by some as playmaker in secret. For many there is too much secrecy in his game. Ozil is not a midfielder that takes fans’ souls by storm, maybe he is no leader in the normal way and not one that carries the game on his shoulders. His body language causes anger as he seems to stroll around the pitch like someone who is not fully involved. In public Ozil appears shy and full of caution, hiding his true feelings.
When the German national anthem is played before games, Ozil’s lips are sealed. The practicing Muslim is a silent participant from the moment his nation’s anthem sounds out saying “I don’t want to insult anyone, but it is a time when I pray for health and luck”. Ozil has perpetually been criticized for not singing. When he in 2009 decided to play for Germany and not the home country of his parents, relatives and ancestors, Ozil was criticized by many Turkish people. Since then he has been trying to get along between his different worlds.
It might be a surprise to see the outstanding number of Ozil’s followers in social media platforms total more than 30 million. In comparison, his former Real Madrid team mate Cristiano Ronaldo has nearly four times as many. Ronaldo played a vital role in Ozil’s soccer life when playing for Real between 2010 and 2013. The Portuguese publicly criticized his club for dropping Ozil, who in 2013 joined Arsenal for approximately 50 million euro.
“That Ozil is leaving is bad news for me,” Ronaldo said. “I’m deeply upset. I can’t understand why a man that makes the difference has to leave,” Ronaldo complained. Ozil for Ronaldo was like a life insurance policy delivering passes the Portuguese striker could score many of his goals from.
Despite of his impressive club record Ozil has never succeeded in being called a leader in the German national team. In many important games Ozil was seldom seen among the best. Before Euro 2016 started, Ozil expressed his hopes of being able to deliver similar performances saying “I want to show everybody what I’m capable of.” The game on Saturday against Italy will be the next big challenge for the midfielder as he will have to supply convincing answers against Italy’s solid defense. Loew meanwhile is sure to need a man like Ozil to get over Germany’s “Italy trauma”.
It will be a particularly difficult task for Ozil to be the playmaker in secret supplying his fellow strikers’ deadly passes in narrow space. If he succeeds he might be able to take another important step to more acceptances in the country of his birth. Ozil knows exactly what is awaiting him, if he and his team are not the winners.
“Mesut is able to do things the rest can’t do,” said Oliver Bierhoff, the general manager of the German national team, in advance of the Italy game. Now German fans are waiting to see exactly that from their secret man between the lines.