Dennis Bergkamp is probably the most ceiling raising Arsenal transfer of the last thirty years but the club has not signed a player with the clout and fame of Mesut Ozil before. Ozil has 5 million more followers on Instagram than Arsenal and 9 million more twitter followers.
He was a starter at Real Madrid prior to joining the club but, even for a Madrid player, he enjoyed an elevated profile globally only matched by the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar. Ozil is part of a modern fleet of athletes who inspire loyalty, devotion and even tribalism to match any club.
This makes even the most mundane conversation around the player very highly charged, especially on social media platforms. While an elite talent, I don’t think he is quite on the same plane as Messi or Ronaldo or even Neymar, the latter of whom carries the expectations of a country of 220 million people on his back.
He probably exists in the still elite band just below these behemoths. So what is it about Ozil that inspires such devotion? He clearly has a very savvy social media and marketing team behind him (I say this non-pejoratively and without judgement- you have to heavily caveat everything you say about Ozil after all!)
He and his team have recently begun to work on escalating his personal brand with a clothing line and you can already see the planning to maintain his earning potential as his on pitch value declines. None of this is unique, lots of top level footballers do something very similar.
Beyond his talent, there are several other elements that make Ozil very marketable and, at the same time, a little divisive. As a player he taps into your belief system about football- maybe more than just football- with the sleek, subtle way that he operates. This often makes the debate around him very charged.
His style is at the very apex of the subtle creative spectrum. This has created a kind of culture war where you are either able to perceive the subtle brushstrokes of his genius (‘listen to the notes he doesn’t play’) or else consider him a work shy poser, singularly unable or unwilling to roll his sleeves up and do the dirty work. I think the currency of the assist has become weaponised due in no small part to Ozil’s fan base and their keenness to see his most prolific contribution recognised.
In my view, Ozil has also been inconsistent according to his standards during his time at Arsenal. It could be that I am not intelligent enough to always observe all of his subtleties, maybe I am overestimating his contribution and trying too hard to see subtleties that aren’t really there for fear of being accused of ‘not getting it’, like a forlorn arts student cocking an eyebrow and stroking their chin while watching a Man Ray film.
The more charged a debate comes, the more we are attracted to the extremes of it. Much in the same way that you are more likely to lie or phrase your points reductively when you become irked in an argument. There is also a subtle frailty to Ozil, in his physique and his body language that, in my view, compels people to fight his corner fiercely (again, I say this non-judgmentally).
I think many people are inspired to defend him from many threatening forces- defenders that want to kick him, a commentariat that doesn’t understand him. There have been incidents beyond his control during his career that have played into this desire to defend him. The appalling xenophobia he has experienced due to his dual nationality, for instance, that drove him to retire from international football citing a lack of acceptance for his Turkish heritage.
Ozil has shown many times that he is very willing to speak out and defend himself. He took the xenophobes head on when he made the decision to call time on his international career. He has spoken out, with justification, over the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. He has also visibly aligned himself with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, whom organisations such as Amnesty International have taken a very dim view of.
He also had no compunction about refusing to take a pay cut at the outset of the pandemic- which is totally his choice and the fact that this key detail was, in my view, extremely unfairly leaked, just shows how much awareness there is of the conversation around him. He wasn’t the only player, we are told, to refuse the pay cut yet he was the only victim of such a leak.
His situation at Arsenal has become divisive because so few public details exist about the reason for his various expulsions from the team. Three separate coaches have seen fit to discipline him in this way so we can certainly infer from that that he is no shrinking violet and not afraid to have his say. His banishment continues to play into this sense of sympathy many have for him and amplify the urge to defend him.
Ozil’s heritage makes him, simultaneously, a target for xenophobia but also a source of inspiration. He wears his dual national identity very proudly and you probably don’t need to share his specific national identities to be able to relate to that. Though born in Germany, Ozil has an immigrant identity that strikes a chord with many- and many will empathise some of the injustices and prejudices that come with that. He also speaks proudly of his Muslim faith and this fosters a connection and sense of kinship with many Muslim fans.
Fans of Ozil seem anomalous or strange to many but plenty of us will go to great lengths to defend our clubs or take umbrage at criticism- and plenty of fans take that too far. You might laugh at that suggestion but how many times have you accused “the media” or referees of having “an agenda” against Arsenal or accused them of going easy on a club that you don’t like?
To some degree we are all tribal and overly sensitive about our clubs because they are bound up in our own identity. Not everyone that would consider themselves a big fan of Ozil takes it too far in much the same way that not everyone that considers themselves a fan of a club does. We have a responsibility to acknowledge there are many shades of grey.
I think it’s also true that the strength of feeling that Ozil inspires causes some to take an overly dim view of the player. I would certainly put myself in that category. I don’t have a great problem with the player or the person beyond regretting the fallout of his most recent contract extension. Largely, though, I want him to leave because I am fatigued by the conversation around him and how hostile it can be. (Not fatigued enough to not write this column though, clearly).
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and many people find the fervour around the player to be tiresome, which polarises the conversation further. If you feel attacked by Ozil’s fans for criticising him, it is easy for that to impact your view of the player. He is at once a sympathetic and incendiary figure- often through no fault of his own.
Ozil is essentially symbolic of something many people see in themselves, their ideals for football and beyond, which I think explains why he inspires such devotion. He is a complex figure, an introvert onto whom we can project so much but at the same time, an outspoken and unapologetic character.
His Arsenal career has two distinct chapters- before and after the contract extension. The mystery that surrounds the second chapter makes events very open to interpretation, which creates a potent cocktail for attack and defence. A move to Fenerbahce, to a country and a fan base with whom he clearly identifies, will only go to further his brand and propel the conversation around him. Ozil is, essentially, the poster boy for internet ‘stan’ culture.