SPORTS

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January 18, 2021

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8:01 p.m.

The Ballad of Mesut Özil

13 January 2016, Arsenal are playing away at Liverpool. The game will eventually finish 3-3, a late Joe Allan equalizer ruining the Arsenal supporters’ hopes of going two points clear at the top of the table. But more than the high score line, late drama, and implications for the rest of the season––Arsenal would eventually finish in second, losing the title to Leicester City––this game is remembered for something else. It’s remembered for a piece of magic so subtle that you could have blinked and missed it. But subtle is a word that sums Mesut Özil up perfectly.

In the 76th minute, with Arsenal leading 3-2 and Liverpool’s 40,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs, a ball is kicked out to Özil with enough force that you half-expect it to go flying past him and out of bounds. But Özil turns so that he faces towards the direction that the ball is going, and with one deft touch of his boot captures the ball out of the sky. It somehow falls back across his body, all its momentum sucked out of it; he pivots again, takes the ball in perfect stride, and begins dribbling forward.

The 40,000 Liverpool fans fall quiet. Mesut Özil has silenced them––not with a goal or an assist, but with a touch.

The 3-3 draw at Liverpool came during a season in which Özil was at the height of his game. That season he created 146 chances for his teammates––that is, he played 146 passes that led to attempted shots. It was more than any other player across Europe's top five leagues and it was––and still is––more than anyone in Premier League history.

Özil had 19 assists that season, one below the Premier League record. What’s more remarkable is that during one 11-game stretch in the middle of the season, he tallied 13 assists. No player in Premier League history has assisted anywhere *near* that number of goals, at that rate, for that long. A year after winning the World Cup with his native country Germany, Özil was bossing a league long thought to be inhospitable to the kind of timid, delicate playmaker that he had proven himself to be. He was living up to the 42.5 million-pound price tag that Arsenal had paid for him in 2013. He was untouchable. As it turned out, too untouchable.

Because two years later, in January 2018, Arsenal extended Mesut Özil’s contract, with a deal that would entitle him to a staggering £350,000 per week and tie him to the club until the summer of 2021. This wasn’t an absurd decision. Özil probably wouldn’t perform at his 2015-16 level again, and knee issues meant he was missing a few games here and there. But he was still one of the most creative forces in the world, assisting in predictably impressive numbers, and helping the club to an FA Cup win in 2017. Arsenal’s other real star, the Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez, had just been traded to Manchester United. Losing Özil in addition to Sanchez would have been unthinkable.

The new contract was a defining moment, but not just because Mesut Özil’s Arsenal career would begin to dissipate after a year of that three-and-a-half-year deal. It was also because at that point in time, the fates decided that Özil’s life off the field would be more important than his life on it.

In the summer of 2018, Özil released a lengthy statement on Twitter to announce his retirement from international soccer. Özil accused Reinhard Grindel, the president of The German Football Federation, and others in Germany, of discriminating against his Turkish and Muslim background. “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he wrote. The feud had begun after Özil had been photographed with Turkish President Erdoğan earlier in the summer, a man known for, among other things, his anti-German policies. Özil stated that he visited Erdoğan out of obligation to his ancestral home, and not because he supported the politician. Grindel clearly thought otherwise. It’s still unclear why Özil was pictured with Erdoğan, or whether Grindel was actually racially abusing Özil. In any case, Özil was done playing for Germany, and these off-field issues were just the start. 

Arsenal underwent a change of manager that summer, and new boss Unai Emery immediately faced a problem of what to do with Özil. Emery felt that the player didn’t “work” hard enough––probably the most common criticism of Özil––and was happy to leave him on the sidelines for much of the 18/19 season. However, disappointing results undermined Emery’s position, and he turned to the playmaker more as the season wore down. 

In December 2019, after Özil had again been sidelined for most of the beginning of the season, he took to Twitter to speak out against another injustice. He released a statement in the form of a poem that called on Muslims around the world to support the Uighur Turks, a Muslim minority who had been systematically detained and brainwashed *en masse* by the Chinese government. The statement had an immediate impact. Özil’s likeness was quickly banned from soccer video games in China, and the CCP pulled Arsenal’s next game from their state networks. Arsenal, aware of their business interests, publicly distanced themselves from the statement. “As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics,” the club wrote on a Chinese social media site––a cowardly and hypocritical move. The club had never responded to players making political statements on social media before. Arsenal’s hasty words exemplified the irony of big corporations using social media to attach themselves to specific political movements. It also showed that they didn’t care much about standing up for their player.

The same month this drama unfolded, a new Arsenal manager was hired. Özil enjoyed a brief purple patch under head coach Mikel Arteta, putting in good displays until the 2019-20 season went into a pandemic-induced pause. But when the season resumed in June, Özil did not. He wasn’t picked for any of Arsenal’s final 13 games. When the 2020-21 season began, Özil wasn’t registered for Arsenal’s 25-man Premier League squad. Five years after one of the most creative league campaigns of all time, Mesut Özil had been written out of his team altogether. This time, it was for good.

It can still be hard to see why a classy midfielder who gave up the security of ambivalence to speak out against injustice is not leaving as a hero but a villain among most Arsenal fans. The easy explanation is that even when Özil has gotten game time over the last few years, he has often been disappointing. His salary is unjustifiable, and rather than alleviate the financial burden by leaving for another club, he refuses. Arsenal reportedly tried to sell him in the summer of 2019 and 2020, but both times he has said that he wants to stay at Arsenal, seemingly happy to capitalize off his bloated contract by sitting at home and being paid a fortune to do so. 

But the more difficult thing to realize is that Özil was divisive even when he was the best creator in Europe. It’s one of the things that make him so interesting: he doesn’t look like a good soccer player. At all. He’s not fast, not strong, not good at defending. He doesn’t use his weak foot very often. When he has the ball, he plays incidentally, like he’s stumbled into a professional soccer match while on the way to the grocery store.

And then he’ll skip past two defenders with one effortless touch of the ball. Or ping a pass past a line of outstretched defenders and into the feet of a striker in space. Or hit a cross so accurately that for a second the match has become a geometry problem: if he hits it there, at that speed, and it bounces off the striker at that angle, will the ball go in? (The answer would always be yes.) It was Özil’s technique that saved him: he had the vision to spot teammates making runs anywhere on the pitch, and the ability to slide passes perfectly into their stride. His lackadaisical attitude bewitched opposition teams. It never looked like he was making a run, then all of a sudden you’d find him with the ball, in acres of space, calmly scanning the pitch, preparing for the next killer pass. 

The irony of all this is that what Arsenal need now more than ever is creativity. This season they lie 11th in the table, having scored only 20 goals in 18 games. Watching them team attack is like watching a pendulum swing––they pass the ball incessantly around the goal, back and forth, back and forth, without any kind of plan for scoring. Predictably, it can be hypnotizingly boring.

Some say Mesut Özil was erased because of his support of the Uighurs. Some say he simply doesn’t put in the effort that Mikel Arteta requires of his players. The most likely explanation seems to be that the club has decided the money Özil would gain from appearance bonuses is of greater value than the services he provides. Özil, for his part, has continually taken to Twitter to express his desire to play and his love of Arsenal. But he’s also cleverly seized opportunities to undermine the club. In October, he publicly offered to pay the salary of Jerry Quy, a man who had worn a green dinosaur costume as the official mascot of Arsenal for 27 years, and who had recently and ill-advisedly been made redundant by the club. 

But all of the drama––the Twitter beefs, the irate fans, the statement on China, and the eight months of not playing a minute of soccer––seems slightly laughable now. On Monday, Mesut Özil signed for the Turkish club Fenerbahçe. He’s gone, gone from the highest tier of world soccer, gone slightly symbolically back to his ancestral home. And it can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. Most players who have been at a club for seven years receive a small ceremony before their last game, a roaring ovation by the fans. Özil never even knew his final game was his last.

That final game in question was a home game against West Ham, a few days before the league’s hiatus. There were no pinpoint through balls or delicious whipped crosses, no ethereal touches to silence the crowd. By all intents and purposes, Özil had a quiet night. But there was this:

It’s late in the game, the 77th minute or so. Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang turns on the edge of the box and angrily fires a shot towards goal. The ball takes a wicked deflection off a West Ham defender, which sends it hard into the ground and then up high into the night, lazily arcing towards the center of the box. No one really reacts except Özil, who gets underneath the ball and prepares to head it. Though the ball is falling in at a strange trajectory, nothing stands between Özil and the goal at this moment except the goalkeeper, Łukasz Fabiański. He can aim his header towards either side of Fabiański, and the ball will go in.

Humans are inherently selfish beings––it’s not too much of a cliché to say that, right? Professional players get notoriously angry after learning that a deflected finish will be credited to the defender as an own goal, rather than to them. We want the goal to be *our* goal. We want *our* name next to it on the match report. I have no doubt that any human in the world with as much of a notion as to how soccer works would have headed this ball towards a goal. 

Mesut Özil, in the few seconds as the ball rises and then falls onto his forehead, never so much as looks at the goal.

Instead, he heads the ball sideways, to Alexandre Lacazette. The few defenders who have been running to catch up with him are taken out of the equation. Fabiański reacts well to the pass and scrambles towards Lacazette, but he’s still too late; the striker calmly slots the ball into the bottom corner of the goal. It’s the only goal scored that night. Özil, who could have had it for himself, has opted for one final assist.

Perhaps this says something about Özil’s stubbornness––that he has never tried to change his style of play at Arsenal, even as the entire sport was changing underneath him. As exemplified by the West Ham game, he has never tried to take more than a paltry number of shots towards goal, nor did he ever want to track back and do more than a symbolic amount of defensive work. He is a puritan who devotes himself to creating chances for others to score from, and little else. In a way, it’s surprising that he even lasted so long.

In the last three or four years, the Premier League has become faster and more physical than ever. Pure technicians like Özil have always found it hard to flourish, but now, thanks to organized pressing and more congested defenses, they’re all but extinct. You can take that to mean that the sport changed, and moved past Mesut Özil. You could also take it to mean that Özil, with his ethereal, shadowy brilliance, forced everyone in the sport to change.