“We are looking at the future World Player of the Year,” Miroslav Klose said. “That’s how good he is.” Piling pressure onto the shoulders of such a young individual was bold, but the praise was justified.
Mesut Özil was hardly ever fazed. He has carried himself with the same self-assuredness at 21 and 31, met by paradoxical responses. Once hailed for his languid demeanour and serenity on the pitch, he is now maligned for such distinguishable characteristics. Times have changed, and Özil has too. Tantalisingly unpredictable in his pomp, the spark ignited by his rise to the summit has all but flickered to a halt.
World-class talent doesn’t just disappear, though. Özil is still capable of blending aesthetic brilliance and casual excellence, only in moments rather than periods these days. “I don’t like to compare players,” Klose continued in 2010. “But people talk about the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Kaká being the best players in the world – and Özil is as good as any of them.”
The requisite consistency to be regarded among such greats proved to elude the Arsenal playmaker. After all, the aforementioned trio all won Ballon d’Ors, whereas Özil fell dramatically short in this particular battle for individual recognition, managing nominations on four occasions but achieving a highest finish of 11th in 2011.
Ludicrous though it would seem to suggest that Özil has underachieved – this is a player who, ultimately, has been a Champions League and World Cup winner during an illustrious career – he could have had more. The young playmaker was different from the version we see today; he was precocious, audacious and unique.
Germany had a functional and somewhat predictable group prior to Özil’s emergence. They ticked all the boxes of their nation’s stereotypical footballing unit, with the national side boasting ruthless forwards, strong midfielders and a direct style. Then, in 2009, something peculiar happened: an exception to the rule arrived, and he was the antithesis of everything that Die Mannschaft had embraced over decades.
Özil, born in Gelsenkirchen but of Turkish origin, burst onto the scene and operated with elegance and guile, traits that had been seldom recognisable in the German pool of players previously. He was a trailblazer, and he knew it. “My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game,” the midfielder noted. “The discipline, attitude, and always-give-your-all is the German part.”
Özil mastered his craft in the confines of a caged pitch in the Ruhr valley, honing his technical skills and close control in narrow spaces. Locals nowadays are believed to refer to this particular area as ‘Mesut’s ape cage’, the place at which the graceful playmaker developed before challenging the rigid stereotypes that connoted the national team until his blossoming in the 2009/10 season.
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Özil was not a household name until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but he was widely accepted as one of the brightest talents in Germany after his first full season at Werder Bremen saw him contribute three goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga. This followed a €5m move from Schalke in January 2008, under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, as the player refused contract offers to remain in Gelsenkirchen, much to the disdain of the club’s senior figures.
Welcoming the creative role with which Thomas Schaaf entrusted him in 2008/09, Özil was pivotal for his side. He scored the decisive goal in Werder’s 1–0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal final having helped the team reach this stage after dispatching a penalty in a semi-final shootout triumph over Hamburg. He strutted up to the spot from the halfway line, calmly dispatched the effort in the midst of the palpable tension, and casually walked back towards his teammates with a grin etched across his face. It was the quiet yet unmistakable confidence of a player who relished the big occasions.
Özil was also making a name for himself on the international stage. In the 2009 Under-21 European Championship, the Werder star was in inspired form and saved his best until last. The playmaker dismantled England in the final of the competition, toying with their defenders and orchestrating a demolition in Sweden. In what was deemed a Man of the Match display, Özil scored once and assisted twice as he helped to usher in a new generation of German talent, featuring the likes of Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and Jérôme Boateng. “We have our own Messi, and he is Özil,” vaunted under-21 boss Horst Hrubesch.
On the back of such an exceptional tournament, plenty was expected of Özil in the Bundesliga. Elusive Brazilian playmaker Diego had just left Werder for Juventus, but the German club were calm about his departure; they had a player with an even higher ceiling already in the ranks, and manager Schaaf showed no hesitation in making the prodigy the nucleus of his team for the 2009/10 campaign. Die Grün-Weißen hoped that Özil would provide the same panache and flair as his predecessor, and he duly delivered.
Schaaf typically deployed Özil at the tip of a midfield diamond, with players such as Aaron Hunt, Philipp Bargfrede and Tim Borowski alternating in shuttling roles behind him. Torsten Frings, meanwhile, wore the captain’s armband and operated in a sitting role as the deepest of the quartet in the middle. Özil enjoyed a positive relationship with his teammates and linked up well with the front-men, Claudio Pizarro and Hugo Almeida, while Marko Marin also drifted between the attack and midfield.
He started as he meant to go on. Özil opened the campaign with five goal involvements in four matches, basking in the freedom that his new role as the primary creative fulcrum in Werder’s line-up offered. He netted at the Allianz Arena in a 1–1 draw at Bayern Munich and was decisive in a 3–2 win away at Hertha, stealing the headlines with a goal and an assist.
Özil’s devastating form in the final third was not only limited to German soil, either. He took his exploits into Werder’s qualifying campaign for the Europa League, scoring once and assisting four times as the Bundesliga club defeated Kazakh outfit Aktobe 8–3 on aggregate over two legs.
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Özil had purveyed a glimpse of what was to come in the Bundesliga in 2009/10, sounding a warning of the havoc he would proceed to cause opposing defences as he picked teams apart, yet his genius still stunned many. Often, players would attempt to stymie his creative influence to no avail, with the clever movement and deft touches provided by the Germany under-21 talisman evading the physical approach of opponents. Özil was, at times, unmarkable; his comfort in receiving the ball on the half-turn married with pinpoint passing and intelligent decision-making was a recipe for success, and Schaaf ensured that Werder’s system revolved around maximising his innovation.
No match better encapsulated Özil’s insatiable desire to blow teams away than his majestic showing in a 6–0 win away at Freiburg. Gliding past defenders and dizzying them with quickly exchanged passes and runs in behind, he led his side to a comprehensive win, chipping in with a goal and four assists along the way. He was ruthless, but not in the way that had become synonymous with German football at the time. Özil wasn’t strong, nor was he a powerful runner, but his strengths lied in his glorious delicacy on the ball.
He continued to spearhead what was shaping up to be a promising campaign for Werder. Schaaf’s side exited the Europa League in the round of 16 as Valencia advanced on away goals after a 5–5 aggregate scoreline, but Özil more than made his mark on the European stage, amassing seven assists, as well as the four against Aktobe in qualifying.
He drew attention to himself with a catalogue of impressive performances, and eventually his persistence was rewarded. Germany boss Joachim Löw handed him his senior debut in February 2009 against Norway, marking the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the pair. Still, work was to be done before the manager would confirm the Werder player’s place on the plane to South Africa in the following summer – and Özil kept his feet firmly on the ground.
During the run-in towards the end of the domestic campaign, he was in scintillating form. Over the course of a seven-game period which saw Özil play his 100th Bundesliga game at the age of just 21 – incidentally in a 2–0 win at Schalke, where he netted and assisted again – he racked up seven goal involvements. Unfortunately, his showings for Werder would not inspire them to success in the DFB-Pokal, as Bayern mercilessly swatted them aside with a 4–0 win in the final.
Still, Özil had a season to remember in Germany, and his numbers were more than just eye-catching. In all competitions, he netted ten goals from midfield and set up 29 for his teammates. Clubs across the continent were alerted to the youngster who had set the Bundesliga alight after some magisterial showings, with Arsenal and Juventus understood to have expressed an interest. Still, no decision on his future had been made, and if Özil was not globally known before he jetted off to the World Cup, he would be the name on adoring viewers’ lips within weeks.
On paper, Özil was the odd one out in Löw’s 23-man arsenal. Unglamorous but effective players crowded the German squad that would test themselves in South Africa – Lukas Podolski, Thomas Müller, and Klose were all high-quality, if somewhat traditional, options – yet Özil embodied something rather abnormal: flair.
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Löw largely stuck to a 4–2–3–1 shape with two holding midfielders in a double pivot behind Özil. He was afforded the freedom to roam between the lines, from right to left, dropping deep to string attacking sequences together and penetrate defensive lines with shrewd movement and anticipation.
The world watched on, unsuspectingly, as they prepared to observe Germany’s meeting with Australia in their first group game. The outcome of this match seemed predetermined, and Löw’s men were clear favourites, but the performance of a 21-year-old at the very heart of Die Mannschaft’s attacks piqued the interests of onlookers.
Özil was marvellous and inspired Germany to a comfortable 4–0 win. He engineered the opening goal of his national team’s campaign when there was little, if any, sign of danger. The youngster drifted infield from the right-hand side before playing an incisive through ball to Müller, whose reverse pass was thumped home by Podolski. The assist was good, and the finish was emphatic; Özil’s virtuosity received the most acclaim, however.
Another instance saw the Werder star receive the ball in the middle of the pitch with his back to goal. While most young players in their World Cup debuts would sheepishly return possession the way they were facing, Özil dared to be different. He retreated to suck two Australia players in before pushing the ball around to the left, bursting away from his opponents and then breaking their defensive lines with a perfectly-executed pass to the onrushing Podolski down the left. The wide forward delivered an inviting ball across the face of goal, but Klose spurned a gilt-edged chance.
Özil hadn’t directly scored nor assisted with Germany three goals to the good, but he got himself involved eventually as he put a low ball on a plate for Cacau to compound Australia’s misery. After astute movement along the defensive line and into the left channel, keeping himself onside, Özil slipped away to hand his teammate the fourth and final goal of the evening. It was a near-complete performance but for a narrow miss with a chipped effort and a booking, awarded after a dive in the Australia penalty area.
Tim Cahill was full of praise for his midfield counterpart following the match. “I think the devastating factor was Özil,” the Everton man admitted. “Credit to the youngster. He’s a great player, and obviously, he’s going to do great things for the team. The way he opens up defences is a credit to him.”
Özil was unable to recreate such a dominant performance as Serbia stunned Germany with a 1–0 victory in the second batch of fixtures, but the stage was set for the midfielder to shine as Löw’s men headed into a do-or-die outing against Ghana. Only a win would guarantee them a place in the knockout stages, and Özil’s confidence was unshakeable in the build-up to the game.
“Up to now I’m satisfied with my performances at the World Cup,” he said. “But I know I can do even better, and I want to show that against Ghana. I want to play perfectly and help us win the game. It’s all the same to me whether my opponent is two metres tall or two metres wide, I’m not afraid of anybody.”
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Although his performance against Ghana was not necessarily perfect, it was sensational nonetheless, and Özil’s excellent finish proved decisive as Germany came away with a 1–0 win. The 21-year-old was picked out by Müller on the edge of the box after a pass from the right-hand side, and an immediate threat did not appear to present itself.
Özil’s first touch lifted the ball slightly into the air, offering his Ghanaian opponents the opportunity to press him before they could be dumbfounded by his brilliance. They declined, and Özil made them pay. He opened his body up and lashed the ball home with the laces of his left boot, the ball soaring past Richard Kingson in goal before he even had the chance to make a hapless attempt to thwart the strike. It was not a goal associated with the resplendence and grace with which Özil had carried himself in the tournament, but instead one of German stereotype: ruthless, efficient and powerful.
“He always wants the ball, he’s very good technically and he can score goals too as he proved against Ghana,” observed ever-present Bayern Munich star, Philipp Lahm. “He’s not only a good player for us but he’s different to what we have elsewhere in the squad, so he’s very important. Every tournament has a man who makes a reputation and hopefully, Mesut will be a star.”
Özil’s place in the Germany squad was more or less guaranteed by the absence of Michael Ballack, who suffered an injury in the run-up to the tournament. His nascent alternative was certainly cut from a different cloth and much less of a leader at his young age. Lahm, however, acknowledged that the Werder playmaker was at home on the big stage. “It is not easy to fill Ballack’s boots,” he said. “He is a big player and it’s not easy for us without him, but Mesut is doing it his way and taking responsibility. I think he will become one of the best players in the world.”
His teammates appreciated his talents; supporters across the globe marvelled at his finesse; Löw was enchanted by his idiosyncrasy. Özil would receive the ball, make time stand still, before setting his players away at a million miles an hour. Games were played at his pace, and he dictated the tempo as he drifted in and out of position, ghosting behind defenders and leaving them in his wake with a deceptive turn of pace. Özil was the difference and caressed the ball unlike any of his other 22 compatriots in South Africa.
Löw placed emphasis upon positional discipline but gave his mercurial talent leeway. It proved to be an inspired decision as Germany rolled teams over with speedy counter-attacks, clever runs in behind and excellently-timed bursts into the final third. Özil staged an exhibition in all three before the knockouts had even begun.
Still, there would be plenty of time for yet more magic, and the midfielder ripped England apart when the game opened up as Germany locked horns with Fabio Capello’s side in the round of 16. Löw’s men had enjoyed a largely dominant performance and rubbed salt into their opponents’ wounds with rapid breakaways and clinical finishing.
Özil went head to head with Gareth Barry down the left in the second half as they battled for a loose pass, and the 21-year-old almost apologetically breezed past the midfielder, leaving him for dead and racing clear down the wing. He proceeded to carefully prod a pass across the face of goal to the onrushing Müller, whose typically effective late run into the box resulted in the ball hitting the back of the net. Özil did all the hard work, and again gave his teammate no chance of spurning an opportunity to score.
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Germany’s 4–1 demolition of England saw them enter the quarter-finals, where Argentina would await them. Löw saw his side display the same proficiency in front of goal that had swept aside their counterparts previously as Die Mannschaft romped to a 4–0 victory. Özil was again the creative outlet and helped add insult to injury to Argentina’s chances with the final assist of the afternoon. Podolski set him away down the left-hand side before he clipped a well-timed cross over to Klose, who made no mistake and slotted the ball beyond Sergio Romero.
All three of Özil’s assists in South Africa followed a similar pattern: he found space in the left channel, timed his run expertly before providing a straightforward finish for his teammates. He made simplicity stylish, and Germany’s attacking threat improved tenfold amidst the emergence of such a unique talent.
Still, the impact of the Werder midfielder was not enough to help Löw and his side to the final, as they fell short to Spain in a 1–0 semi-final defeat courtesy of Carles Puyol’s effort. It was heartbreak for Özil, who was in the top ten for the Golden Ball award, but it would poetically be Spain where his career path would next lead him.
His decisiveness and penetrative passing, particularly on the break, attracted plenty of suitors, and José Mourinho identified him as the perfect conductor of his new-look Real Madrid, tasked with knocking Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona off their perch. Los Blancos signed Özil for a reported fee of €20m following his exploits not just in South Africa, but throughout the course of the domestic campaign, as Mourinho made big changes upon his arrival at the Bernabéu. Khedira, who had impressed in the Germany midfield, was also snapped up by Real after an impressive World Cup.
Having contributed 108 appearances at Werder Bremen, in which he set up 54 goals, averaging an assist every other game, Özil made the leap and arrived in Spain, departing Germany for the first time. He had been crowned the ‘multi-kulti kicker’ and was heralded for being among the first national team players from an immigrant background who had enjoyed such success for the country, perhaps because he was, quite simply, totally different to what German supporters had been accustomed to.
Özil’s international career drew to a close in bitter fashion, however, as he abruptly called time on his days with the German national team in 2018, citing racially aggravated discrimination on the part of DFB president Reinhard Grindel as a fundamental reason. Özil also stated that he no longer felt valued in a Germany shirt, a far cry from how Löw once cherished him as the invaluably unpredictable cog in an otherwise mechanical unit of players. The manager oversaw the entirety of his international career, spanning three World Cups and including no less than five national team Player of the Year awards.
“Özil is unique,” Mourinho once said of his former player. “There is no copy of him, not even a bad copy.” Many would disagree as the years passed, and it is hard to argue that his time at the peak of European football should have been prolonged. However, Özil will always have 2009/10, the campaign in which he announced himself to the world; the one in which he became Germany’s exception to the rule; the season in which he proved that attraction over attrition was possible in Die Mannschaft.
His regression has been unforgiving. Still, we’re sometimes lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the old Mesut Özil, when he skips past a challenge with effortless poise before threading his teammates through in the final third with unthinkable precision. These moments don’t come often enough as he approaches the latter stages of a career littered with trophies and individual honours, but in 2010, he was untouchable. He was elegant, audacious and daring. He was, and always will be, unapologetically, Özil.
By Luke Osman @lukeosman_