The Polite Boy with the Faux-Hawk
Despite a turbulent winter at Werder Bremen, the 20-year-old midfielder Mesut Özil is one of this season's biggest up-and-coming football players. His winning goal in the German cup final proved that this young man is already much more than a hopeful. By André Tucic
Last Saturday, Mesut Özil scored the all-important 1:0 goal against the unlucky lads of Bayer Leverkusen. Following through on a clever pass from the playmaker Diego, our man from Gelsenkirchen shot his team Werder Bremen straight to the German football federation cup. Özil had made himself the match-winner – culminating a stormy season that opened with a spectacular 5:1 win against Bayern Munich and closed with an ignominious 5:1 drubbing by the Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg.
Özil and Werder Bremen had previously blown their chance at winning the UEFA cup in the final against the Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk on 20 May. But the nifty midfielder's cup-final goal soothed the pain after a rather rocky past twelve months.
Özil, a polite young man with a Beckham-inspired faux-hawk hairstyle who only joined Werder Bremen last year, is a highly coveted player. About a year and a half ago, the German and Turkish national associations were playing tug of war over him like divorcees locked in an embittered custody battle.
Crescent or eagle?
Özil had already played over twenty matches for the German junior side, finally surrendering his Turkish nationality at the end of 2007. But the Turkish national team still staked a claim for its "prodigal son". It was well worth fighting for Özil from the sporting point of view, but it was also a matter of prestige. Turkey hates to see its own playing for Germany.
"We'll do everything it takes to make him play for us," said the Turkish national trainer Fatih Terim, a man fond of issuing pathos-laden statements with a ring of national importance. At that point, Özil had only played one friendly game in the German colours, and could still have kicked for Turkey in theory. Players can still change sides until they have taken part in an official match for a particular national team – a qualifying, European cup or world cup match, in other words. But Özil seemed to be playing hard to get.
In the end, he turned down Terim's nomination, turning out for a European playoff in the German U 21 team. He was certain he wanted to play for Germany, was his official statement. Yet despite these clear words, it seemed that Özil's mind still wasn't quite made up.
"Listen to your heart"
The next move by the Turkish football association TFF was to send in the Altintop twins to win over Özil. The Altintops, born in Gelsenkirchen like Özil himself, both opted to play for Turkey rather than Germany.
"Listen to your heart," they told the young player, who shares their background down to a tee. Overwhelmed by this heart-rending appeal, Özil started to waver again between the Turkish crescent moon and the German eagle.
The result was a heated debate in Turkey over roots, honour and the fatherland. The German tabloid press christened him "Schnözil" – Özil the Upstart – for doubting his decision in favour of the German side; some intellectually challenged commentators actually considered his divided loyalties an insult. In the end, Germany won the protracted tug of war over the young player, but Özil had to pay a high price for his place on the team.
Exploited by politics
Shortly after Özil's final profession of loyalty, he had to shut down the guest book on his website – it was flooded with a torrent of insults from a number of hot-headed Turkish patriots. While one Turkish parliamentarian congratulated him on his decision in the spirit of the close friendship between the two nations, nationalist voices held a very different view, greeting his move with ridicule.
In Germany, the CDU minister of state Maria Böhmer and the joint chairs of the Green Party Cem Özdemir and Claudia Roth were quick to respond. Roth was practically over the moon: "The fact that he chose the DFB is a great signal! Özil can set an example for millions of people in Germany," she proclaimed. Özil, she said, had proved it was worth making an effort – social mobility was possible.
The whole case is a prime example of German politics' well-meaning but clumsy attempts to conjure up an image of successful integration. No one seemed embarrassed to shanghai a Turkish-German footballer still wet behind the ears and exploit him for the shiny happy multicultural image of a political party.
Drawn into the integration debate
Werder Bremen, a team known for being extremely dedicated to its professional players, was careful to shelter Özil from the limelight during all this.
In coordination with his management, they wanted to prevent him from being constantly asked about his origins and whether he felt more Turkish or German. Özil was a professional footballer, they announced, and had no interest in acting as a poster boy for political campaigns – let alone being drawn into the German integration debate or Turkish discussions on national pride.
The club is right. Özil has only just turned 20 and is a rather unassuming young man: he likes listening to hiphop by Bushido and watching Will Smith movies, and says his least favourite subject at school was art. All he wants is to play football. That's the way it should be. Everything else will take care of itself in the end.
© Qantara.de 2009