When Mesut Özil arrived at Arsenal last season, he was one of the most beloved players in the world. Real Madrid fans cherished him. Cristiano Ronaldo was reportedly quite annoyed at his being sold. In his home country of Germany, he was practically a demigod. The roar which greeted him when he suited up for the ordinarily skinflint Arsenal was a deafening, cathartic blast of noise which no new player had heard on those grounds in years.
But a curious thing happened after he moved to England. He stopped being loved.
For certain, Arsenal fans stuck with him. But in Germany, fans actually booed him during World Cup qualifying. In Spain, whispers began to emerge that he was probably not as good as Isco, the man who replaced him on the team. And the English press savaged him.
When I write that they savaged him, I write it knowing full well that they savage lots of players. There was something different, something very vicious and personal, about Özil’s treatment. He wasn’t just overrated, a charge which is leveled at all sorts of players coming in from other leagues, but lazy, careless and petulant. It culminated in March with the accusation by professional idiot Neil Ashton , of the Daily Mail, that Özil was “nicking a living.”
It was all very strange. To be sure, there was the traditional adjustment period. This was especially true around the Premier League’s notorious Boxing Day games, an overly busy period which serves as a short mid-season vacation elsewhere in Europe. He faded a bit then, finally getting injured as his body broke down under the new rigors of England’s top league.
But his stats were fine. More than fine. His first season at Arsenal was statistically better than David Silva’s first season at Manchester City. He ran more than people said, made more key passes than they let on, and dished out assists without any speed on the wings after Theo Walcott went out.
The weird dissatisfaction with Özil finally seemed to let up after the World Cup was over. Infographics floated around showing he was the best player on the German team in several key metrics. Others wrote pieces defending his game as being beyond stats, placing Özil as a brilliant, but quiet, player who makes everyone around him better while never being flashy enough to get the credit.
I’m of the latter school of thought. There’s something otherworldly and downright strange about the way Özil plays. His gait when he runs looks as though he’s barely touching the ground, lending an ethereal quality to every dribble. His play sets up passes two and three moves in advance, letting him dictate play even when he’s not actively involved. His face is always stuck in a stoic mask of seeming disinterest in the game around him, lending fuel to the dimwitted fire that he doesn’t care about the game he’s paid to play. In short, he looks like he’s not even there, even when he’s dominating play.
The welcome palliatives centered on his style of play and attempted to wed his impressive stats with the seemingly contradictory idea that he was beyond such measurements. But there are other players like that and they don’t get nearly the heated anger toward them as Özil sometimes does. Something else was driving the mix of contempt and anger toward Özil.
In the middle of the World Cup, Jose Mourinho, the man who brought Özil to Real Madrid, referred to the German playmaker as “sensitive”, saying that he “needs trust” to truly thrive. As if to back the statements up, Arsene Wenger, Özil’s current coach at Arsenal, passed on former club captain Cesc Fabregas as a show of total faith in Özil’s ability to lead the team.
And this is where we begin to get at why Özil was held in such venomous disregard by the media up until Germany finally lifted the World Cup trophy. It has nothing to do with his game and everything to do with who he is away from it.
We, fans and media alike, dwell in a strange world where brashness is the mark of a real superstar athlete. We may bemoan the crassness of how commercial it’s all gotten, how rich our athletes have become, how loud sports have become, but we do absolutely nothing to affect a change in it. A leader is noisy during the game, ostentatious away from it. You hear this refrain in every corner of sports media, from ESPN to sports blogs. Pundits commit to relentless bleating about “intangibles” and “body language” until the whole sportswatching world conflates loudness with leadership. And there’s nothing worse than not being a leader if you’re an expensive or talented athlete.
Özil seems singularly disinterested in all of this noise. There’s not another athlete at his level quite like him in the world, and I am aware of how big a claim that is. He is, and I mean this in the most old-school psychological profile way I can, an introvert in a ruthlessly extroverted global sporting culture.
It’s not that he doesn’t like money or the perks which come with being good at his job; he has the footballer’s ubiquitous love of flashy sports cars, along with a massive London home and pop star girlfriend. But the stuff between games just isn’t for him. He does his job, good or bad (and everyone has an off game), and then he seems like he’d really rather hop in that hot car and head home.
Following Arsenal as closely as I do, Özil’s unease at all of the stuff that comes with being famous is painfully apparent. Any time there’s promotional work away from the pitch, he seems like he’d rather be a million miles away. He shrinks from interviews. When he does speak, he keeps it brief and quiet, his face the same impenetrable mask as it is when he plays.
There’s the famous (to Gooners) cheer after Arsenal won the FA Cup. Özil is clearly happy. The camera pans to him. Noticing that he’s on camera and aware that he needs to do something, he pumps his fists and awkwardly shouts, “Ja, Gunners, ja,” through half-gritted teeth. I remember watching it live and thinking that someone on the coaching staff had clearly told him to be louder, happier, more of a leader when he was onscreen. Because that’s what we want, right? Better a man going against his natural inclinations for a mug to the camera than a quiet smile and kiss of the trophy.
He’s so atypical from what’s expected from a star athlete that it takes nothing to create controversy out of thin air. After the World Cup ended, rumors spread that Özil had donated his entire bonus check to Gaza humanitarian aid. Given the timing of the rumors, with the current Israeli actions in Gaza just cranking up at that time, it was suddenly a very hot button issue. I saw no few Arsenal fans tear into each other over the rumor, with Özil being a blank canvas of a quiet Muslim soccer player to paint their own politics on. It made perfect sense to do so; Özil, after all, wasn’t talking.
He didn’t donate his check to Gaza, as it turns out. He donated it to Brazilian kids in medical trouble. But it was all so easy to believe he would, no matter your politics, that it took on a life of its own, at least for that 24-hour period before it was debunked. That’s how Özil works. He barely says a word but all manner of things, good and bad, are ascribed to him.
Brian Phillips’ brilliant piece on Özil for Grantland, back when the transfer to Arsenal happened seems an even better read now. It hits all the right notes, notes which are obvious to any Özil watcher: he’s quiet, assured, keeps to himself, ridiculously talented, and sensitive. But what Phillips couldn’t have predicted is just how much Özil’s subdued personality drove the press and some fans crazy.
And make no mistake, that’s why so many people spent the last year going so hard after him. There’s only so many curt interviews you can give and smiles you can refuse to make before the sports media gets annoyed. A frown becomes deep dissatisfaction, a bad game morphs into a transfer bust, and you stick Özil next to his relentlessly cheery countryman and Arsenal teammate, Lukas Podolski, and, well, you start to wonder why Özil is so damned miserable.
But this is the cage we’ve made of our expectations when it comes to sports. A true superstar is always available, always upright and smiling; if he’s not smiling, it’s because he’s barking orders at his teammates or getting fired up, Ray Lewis style. That’s what leaders do and, because Özil doesn’t, he’s not a leader. And for the Neil Ashtons and Robbie Savages of the world, if you’re not a leader, you’re nothing.
Özil doesn’t fit into any neat categories. Neither does he precisely break them. He’s simply Özil, the guy who plays soccer really well. We can enjoy him or not. He’ll never let us know if it bothers him, either way.