CHENGAPPA CARIAPA | 30th October 2020

Istill remember the afternoon of 2nd September 2013 quite vividly.  I had just returned from my classes and was headed for football practice. I quickly got changed and took a quick detour to the computer room to look out for any deadline day drama. As an Arsenal fan, my hopes were not too high but despite being fully aware of this very fact, I decided to Google ‘Arsenal transfer news’. Being in a boarding school, Google was the only access to football news we had as Facebook or Twitter weren’t permitted. What I saw next left me in shock.

The first headline stated, “Arsenal closing in on deal for Mesut Özil”. I thought it must have been another one of the many rumours fabricated during the transfer window, which is basically silly season to gain readership. The subsequent headline read, “Arsenal have bid accepted for Mesut Özil”. It was too good to be true and since no credible sources had reported anything on that front, I logged off and went for practice.

A few hours later, the news was out. Mesut Özil had signed and Arsenal fans were on cloud nine.

The Honeymoon Period

As had been expected of M10, his career got off to a flying start. He was marauding through defences, playing the most incisive of through balls and weighted passes, gliding on the pitch and making football look so easy it was almost unfair. It was the stuff of dreams for the fanbase, not just to witness the club spend big which is a well-known rarity but to also have one the best players in the world in action at the Emirates. Game after game, whether it be in the Champions League or the Premier League, Arsenal were soaring.

We were top of the table and had made it to the Round of 16 of the Champions League by the end of the year. The subsequent years, the German continued his fine form and even broke the Premier League record for getting an assist in 7 consecutive matches in 2015. Özil and Arsenal were on fire for the next 5 years and even ended their trophy drought during that period with Aaron Ramsey’s iconic FA Cup winner in the comeback against Hull in the final.

2015-16, 19 assists. Unplayable.

But things took a turn for the worst in 2018 after Mesut signed a massive £350k-a-week contract. Arsene Wenger announced his departure from the club a few months later and the future of every player was left hanging.

And they’ve only worsened for Mesut as time has passed.

The Beginning of the End

The World Cup winner’s downfall can be attributed to several on and off field situations. The first amongst many being Unai Emery’s open statements questioning his commitment and attitude in training. Mind you, Özil actually performed exceptionally well in quite a few games under the Spaniard’s reign. However, the first frictions between the player and manager began to show themselves when Arsenal suffered a dip in performances towards the end of 2018. Özil was a frustrated figure on the pitch and Emery began benching him often. This was the beginning of his decline at Arsenal.

And his political views and affiliations need no introduction. Özil has staunchly defended Islamic persecution around the world, time and again and has faced a backlash for continuously supporting the Turkish President who is see as a villainous figure across Europe. But something that crossed a line according to the club and I feel has led to his untimely side-lining is his public statement condemning the treatment of the Uighur community in China.

Arsenal’s commercial interests in China have had a sizeable say in their business model. As has been reported on multiple occasions, owner funding has been notoriously low and hence, the self-sustenance model has been pursued avidly for a long time now. So when it comes to maintaining the sources of income and revenue, the club has to ensure that the relationships with their media and advertisement outlets are healthy. Post the Uighur comments, the club publicly distanced themselves from all statements made by Mesut. It was evident that it had shocked them and there is no doubt that the Chinese government came down heavily on PES and sports broadcasters in China with regards to Özil’s comments about the country.

To be honest, it was a sticky situation and all one can say is that it’s tough to really pick sides considering the sad state of affairs in the nation while also taking into consideration the club’s vested and somewhat practical interests. However, keeping the politics of the matters aside, there were several different ways in which this could have been dealt with and which the club should have considered as an alternative.

This has been touted as one of the many reasons why the club has been so tight-lipped on the entire fiasco. The age-old conundrum of backing what is morally right versus being a profitable business that chooses to be diplomatic in its best interests pops up once again and Arsenal have clearly made their mind up. In fact the situation had become so grave that despite Özil insisting he was fit, the club had continuously made public statements before games about his so-called back injuries and spasms that have resulted in him being left at home. Cue the Fortnite jokes.

The fans have accused the club of hiding the truth and these accusations were at their peak during Unai Emery’s tenure. The culmination of this was the exclusion of Mesut Özil from the Premier League squad this season, a truly shocking decision for such a loyal servant. Branding the No. 10 as ‘selfish’ for not agreeing to a reduction in his wages was the norm when Arsenal came out with cost-cutting measures during the lockdown.

But when the club laid off 55 of its staff, everyone understood what Özil had been saying all along and he had inadvertently proven the club wrong. From my understanding, his trust with the club’s hierarchy is at an all-time low and seemingly, he refuses to buy into the alleged false promises. Özil has refused to leave the club despite being offered a pay out by Arsenal as well as a multimillion-dollar deal by Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.

By declaring his love for the Gunners and refusing the pay out offered to him, Özil has stuck to his guns and honoured the contract that he signed. It’s easy to have premonitions about the German and believe everything you read but perspective is key.

It’s a toxic relationship and it almost seems like while the club want to simply get him off their books, Özil desires justice in some way, shape or form; whether that’s footballing-wise or to almost blow the lid off how the club operates behind-the-scenes.

His public statement upon discovering his exclusion from Arsenal’s Premier League squad was telling to say the least.

“Upon signing my contract in 2018, I pledged my loyalty and allegiance to the club that 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.”

But then again, no assumptions can be made in the current scenario. For now, I do not see his stay as one motivated by monetary incentives at all. I never did, personally. Call me idealistic but I actually believe it’s a footballing decision.

The forgotten side of Mesut Özil

If someone were to ask me why I idolized Mesut Özil back in 2013, it would be because of his ability to dictate the flow of the game, his exquisite passes and an effortlessness that can hardly be coached. Cut to 2020 and I would add to my praise by mentioning his resolve, willpower and most importantly, his sheer bravery in the event of all the odds being stacked against him. And all of this stand true to this day. In the midst of all the negativity that runs social, I tend to stay off the never-ending to maintain my sanity. Football fans can be a unique bunch to put it kindly, especially when it comes to heated discussions under comments sections. By staying away from the constant raging debates on the German’s career, I seem to have understood him better than I would have had he been playing football regularly. Mesut Özil represents a side of footballers that no one talks about. A side that very few players manage to practice and preach.

My admiration for the man who divides opinion more than any footballer the game has ever seen stems from what he represents off the pitch. It is very easy to forget what an individual has done for society and for those who suffer around him when they make it. One action is deemed to be negative and all the good deeds goes in vain. With Özil, keeping football aside, I believe that the criticism and sheer hatred meted out to him from all fronts, whether it be pundits or fans alike is absolutely unwarranted and uncalled for. Every single bit of information that has been disseminated to the public has been interpreted in a plethora of different ways and much like anything divisive amongst Arsenal fans, this has once against split the fanbase like nothing else. The takes are on both sides of the extreme where either, Mesut Özil is the stereotypical footballer, whose arrogance borders on delusion or he’s a saint and is incapable of any missteps or flaws of the kind.

One has to acknowledge that he is a visionary in his own right. And once again, I’m not shining a light on his exceptional ability to see passes no one sees. This isn’t an ode to Özil. But it’s his ability to see through facades and challenge societal injustices that are just as part of his identity as his finesse on the pitch.

The charity work that he has committed himself to in the past few years has ranged from paying for the operations of children in Brazil from his World Cup earnings,  donations to the ‘Big Shoe’ foundation, making sure that all of the guests at his wedding donate a certain amount that would go towards 1,000 life-changing surgeries for children instead of splurging the same amount of gifts and more recently, building on Marcus Rashford’s fight for free school meals. He has been one of the most outspoken footballers of this generation and has continuously reiterated through his community work and public statements about ‘Muslim Lives Matter’.

Coming from a minority community in Germany, he has defined the co-extensive and multicultural football set up in the country. Moreover, this has further instilled hope in countless youngsters across the world who come from impoverished communities and war-torn regions. Özil has time and again campaigned against racism, discrimination and communalism. For me, the man is a sporting icon. He doesn’t have to be the top assist getter in Europe to claim this crown. He has taken a stand against injustice and malice and regardless of his footballing ability, he deserves credit where it’s due.

There have been incidents in history when sportspersons have publicly expressed themselves about human rights and racial or discriminatory abuse.  Muhammad Ali during the Vietnam war was a prominent voice against the government and their misdeeds being carried out. John Carlos and Tom Smith who raised their hands together on the podium during the Mexico Olympics in 1968, with a resolve of signifying a movement against black discrimination. More recently, there have been multiple individuals who have taken a stand such as Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, Lewis Hamilton as well as Raheem Sterling.

Mesut Özil is one among them and will go down in history as a leader who never hid behind a PR machine and instead, strived to fight the right fight.

Why does a man have to suffer so much hatred for expressing his political opinions? Is it because he is a Muslim in a world where Islam is often looked at in contempt or is it because of vested corporate interests by those who employ him? These questions cannot be answered at such a sensitive time for the club and player. As children and teenagers, we have all tried to emulate multiple players and their styles on the field. But there are very few who we look up to for what they engage with off the field. In a day and age of hate and radicalization, there are few people we can look up to for guidance. The select few individuals drive change for the masses to actually believe in a better world. Özil is one such individual who stands out in every given way.

As an Arsenal fan who has seen him from his first day at the club, I will always be proud of watching him adorn the jersey and play at the Carpet. Maybe one day, Mesut Özil will finally reveal the truth in an interview or an autobiography. Perhaps the world will realise that he was never the villain all along. Standing up for his rights is not a part of any political ideology and is something that comes naturally to those who believe in it. The former Werder Bremen man is one such believer who took it upon himself to bear the brunt of the repercussions of his beliefs.

For me and the entire Arsenal fanbase who have revelled in the moments of glory he provided between 2013 and 2020, Özil will always be a player who spoke not just with his feet, but with his mind and heart. I was one of the many fans who engaged in criticising him when he didn’t perform on the field. But when he does put in a world-class display, do the doubters give him his flowers? It’s a question worth pondering over.

For a side that barely creates any chances and is clearly devoid of creativity, I doubt it would be the worst thing to give Özil a shot. After all, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang has the 77th worst xG in the league at the minute and despite his brilliance, he’d certainly be given a helping hand if the German creator rediscovers his form, slowly but surely. I reiterate that it is possibly that Özil doesn’t fit into Arteta’s vision, but we can never know until he gets a consistent runout in the team.

One last chance?

He deserves to be treated better by those involved in his career. And the world deserves to know his story after he comes out of the predicament that he is in now. I would not like to delve into the treatment of him by Arsenal, owing to the lack of clarity on that matter. Maybe one day, I’ll express my views when the situation is clearer. For now, it is imperative to support M10 until his last day at the club and in whatever he takes part in.

He is after all, a Gooner for life.

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