When Mesut Ozil signed for Arsenal on 2nd September 2013 for £42.3m to become the most expensive German of all time, Arsenal fans were elated. For them it was a sign that the club was willing to spend the amounts now necessitated to bring in top level players, and was a signal of intent that Arsenal was being run as a football club, and not a business as was feared.
Ozil came to the club as a player on top of his game, providing a substantial amount of assists for Real Madrid, where in his first season he recorded the highest number (25) of assists of any player in the major European leagues, and in his third and final season, recorded the highest number of assists (26) by any player in La Liga. It was a fairy-tale start for the German in North London, culminating his third season by winning back-to-back FA Cups, leading Mertesacker to praise his compatriot highlighting that “His contributions and assists are vital for any club so we are happy to have him”. Internationally, Ozil achieved the highest feat possible, winning the World Cup in 2014, providing a crucial role. He continued to be an important figure for Arsenal as he entered the final year of his contract. The club were keen to retain their star playmaker and negotiated a three-year extension, more than doubling his salary to £350,000 a week, which Ozil signed on the 31st January 2018, making him the highest-paid player in the club’s history.
What ensued over the following months is the point at which we can note the current saga involving Ozil truly began. In May 2018, Ozil took a picture with the future Turkish president, Erdogan during their meeting, sparking uproar in Germany from their media and from the DFB (German Football Federation), who claimed that “football and the DFB defend values which are not sufficiently respected by Mr Erdogan”. For Ozil, whose ancestry lies in Turkey, this meeting was one to “respect the highest office of [his] family’s country”. Yet this uproar did not falter and came to a climax that summer as Germany, the reigning World Cup champions, were knocked out in the group stages of the tournament for the first time since 1938. Although no player could be more culpable than any other for the shock, the media assigned the majority of the blame to Ozil, despite being involved in only two out of the three games, and creating more chances per game on average than any other player. What arose, more significantly, were instances of racial and discriminatory abuse towards the player, from individuals in major positions. The most crucial of which was from the DFB President Reinhard Grindel, to which Ozil surmounted that “In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”. He went on to say “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten”.
A wider social matter of Turkish immigration in Germany seemed to embody this reaction, which Ozil alluded to, questioning “Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue”. The player also noted a difference in perception between himself and other team-mates of dual heritage, such as Podolski, whom he mentioned was always described as German, despite his Polish heritage, unlike himself who was always known as German-Turkish. A stark realisation that, unlike some of his compatriots, he will never be accepted as fully German, led him to eventually quit the national team bringing a tumultuous end to the World Cup winner’s international career.
With domestic competitions being the Ozil’s sole focus, the turmoil did not cease. For Arsenal, Unai Emery was tasked with succeeding Arsene Wenger’s reign, and despite Ozil enjoying a decent start to the campaign, the new vice-captain’s season was not one befitting of a player on £350,000 a week. Diminishing first-team involvement through injuries and poor form, he was publicly left out of the first team squad on a number of occasions, with suggestions of a fractured relationship with the manager. This relationship was exemplified during an abysmal Arsenal performance in the 2019 Europa League final where Ozil was substituted, and evidently vocalised his frustrations with Emery, allegedly announcing to him that he is ‘not a coach’ as he made his way to the dugout. Rumours of a poor attitude, and potential toxicity to the rest of the squad, were exasperated through his demeanour on the pitch. A passionless approach and negative body language suggested that for Ozil, the enjoyment was no longer there, and for Arsenal, that the playmaker who had provided such a positive influence to the team, no longer existed.
With so much money invested in Ozil, fan’s opinions of him were less than favourable. He continued to feature infrequently the following season, playing 71 minutes out of the first ten league games. For fans, who have spent a large portion of the millennium vocalising their desperation for more spending by the club, this deep-rooted issue found its embodiment in Ozil. The empathiser would feel sorry for the player, speculating that the notable change in performance since the 2018 World Cup could be resultant of the issues he faced then, and that his outlook on the game has changed considerably. Wenger recently mentioned in a Sky Sports interview that creative players, such as Ozil, have a high level of sensitivity in their personality. They require confidence, more so that other styles of footballers, in order to perform at the top of their game, and it would be fair to deduce that the events and treatment Ozil has been subjected to would impact his confidence sizeably. Yet the Arsenal fan would suggest something different, maybe appreciating the empathiser’s points, but also noting that no singular player makes up a team. There are players who capture our hearts, but it is the team’s success which is paramount, holding priority above all else. By commanding such a wage, and providing little in return, Ozil was beginning to be viewed as a hindrance, rather than an advocate, of progress.
There is something commendable about influential figures using their support and fan base to address important issues and attempt to bring positive change to the world. In terms of football, one can see how important Marcus Rashford has been, and continues to be, with his work in helping those of a lower socio-economic background, whilst also performing at a top level for Manchester United. For Ozil, the story appears to be different. Arteta was named as the new head coach following Emery’s sacking, and Ozil was named in every match squad under Arteta, aside from his first game against Everton, until the Covid-enforced break. However during this period, Ozil’s attempts at philanthropy appeared to garner a different reaction, differentiating his actions from someone like Rashford, as Arsenal felt an obligation to get involved.
During December, Ozil shed light on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, where it is believed more than a million of which have been held in detention camps over recent years, leading China to react by enforcing a ban on televising Arsenal in any form. Suspected motivation to protect their commercial interests in the nation caused the club to release a statement distancing themselves from the player, announcing that his views were his own “personal opinion”. Such parallels can be drawn throughout this saga, a proud German, once criticised for celebrating his Turkish heritage, to a devout Muslim, shown a lack of support for addressing injustices to his people.
Race and money appear as the two constant issues surrounding this saga, and the issue of money once again prevailed as Ozil was noted to be one of three Arsenal players not willing to accept a 12.5% wage cut, in order to compensate the financial implications the Coronavirus had brought. His justification was a lack of evidence presented to him in determining where the additional funds would go. This issue developed into one the general public could relate to as Arsenal announced their plan to make 55 staff members redundant, a familiar consequence felt by many throughout this pandemic. Assumptions were made that these redundancies could have been prevented had the wage cuts been accepted, but it should also be fair to mention that a majority of those involved in the first team did accept the cut, and these casualties still arose. In addition, it would be wrong to say the man is without heart, as when it was announced that Jerry Quy aka Gunnersaurus was among the redundancies, Ozil stated that he was willing to reimburse Arsenal with the full salary of the beloved mascot.
7th March 2020 is a date that is bookmarked as the last time Ozil played any competitive minutes in an Arsenal shirt, and following recent events, likely to be the last time ever. Following the Covid break he has not played for the team, last featuring in the matchday squad on the 25th June, a decision the player believes is motivated by his refusal to take a pay-cut. Most recently, this omission from the squad was solidified, as it was announced that he would not be included in either the Europa League or the Premier League squads, a decision which Arteta attributed purely to “footballing reasons”. Nevertheless, even with substandard performances in recent seasons, an omission of a player with such calibre served as a shock to the footballing community. No one felt the emotion of the decision more than Ozil, who made a statement to fans in which he declared “I pledged my loyalty and allegiance to the club I love, Arsenal, and it saddens me that this has not been reciprocated. As I have just found out, loyalty is hard to come by nowadays”.
From feeling “unwanted” by Germany, to feeling his loyalty to Arsenal is not reciprocated, a sense of belonging and identity appears to elude the Arsenal number 10. A lack of understanding of the person and the motivations behind his treatment are what makes this narrative truly enigmatic, and as he looks set to leave this summer when his contract expires, it is curiosity that leads us to wonder what is next for the 32 year old. It has been suggested that Turkey or USA will be the next destination for the final chapter in his career, but one thing that it is fair to wish, as the empathiser might, is that wherever his career may end, it concludes with the performances and enjoyment relatable to how it began.
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Written by Niyant Shah – Twitter – @niyantshah_