Monday 22 January 2018

Ozil a man touched by genius

Oliver Brown goes to Gelsenkirchen to meet those who moulded the mind and dazzling talent of Arsenal's record signing Mesut Ozil

Oliver Brown

The off-yellow facade of Bornstrasse No 30, deep in the Bismarck district of Gelsenkirchen, looks less than prepossessing under a remorseless Ruhr Valley rain.

But behind these walls Mesut Ozil mapped out his astonishing elevation from a scruffy industrial suburb, cultivating his shooting technique inside a fenced-off Affenkafig or 'monkey cage', to the gilded privilege of Real Madrid and now to Arsenal.

At 24, he promises to bring a touch of flamboyant exotica to help validate that £42.4m price tag. His burnished image would seem far removed from his upbringing here, where, as the son of Turkish parents, he became so obsessed with kicking a ball that teachers believed he would take it to bed with him.

Or as Christian Krabbe, his classroom mentor at Gesamtschule Berger Feld, puts it: "Mesut was not the student to stand on the table – he was shy. But if you saw him on the pitch he was another person, because there he exploded. Give him a ball, and he would be somebody else."

It is just three streets from his childhood home that one first encounters the 'cage' where Ozil, energised by watching the abilities of his elder brother Mutlu, mastered his adhesive ball control. Encircled by a 10-foot fence and partly hidden by trees, it's an inauspicious breeding ground for a talent so rare.


But on this patch of concrete, "either in sun or snow" according to Mutlu, he would devote every spare hour to nursing his life's ambition. In a neighbourhood characterised by boarded-up shops, apartment blocks and anti-far-right graffiti, he became one of the precious few who engineered an escape.

As a third-generation German, whose grandfather moved to the region from his native Turkey in the 60s, Ozil has also evolved into a powerfully unifying cultural figure. He is embraced, even by Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the country's first 'multi-kulti' footballer of global renown, talismanic for the national team and a stirring example of an immigrant success story.

He retains a connection with his family in the area, having taken his cousin Serdar to Madrid as a member of his entourage there, but the area he leaves behind has a bleak and benighted aspect on this drab September day.

The doorman outside the clubhouse where Gelsenkirchen's transplanted football fraternity congregate, acts as if none too enamoured by the latest influx of migrant labour. "Romanians," he mutters, bitterly.


A striking colliery tower – Central Support Shaft Nine, to be precise – looms over this city as a reminder of its mining heritage, even if it has been 20 years since the last coal was extracted in this corner of the Ruhr.

The industry's decline left an unemployment rate approaching 30pc, but in the aftermath the Ozil family proved to be the enterprising kind.

Mustafa, latterly Mesut's agent, began his trade as a small-time restaurateur and swiftly sought a sideline in capitalising on his son's manifest gifts on a football pitch. In 1995 he enrolled him at the sports club DJK Westphalia, and the impact of the shy, solitary boy from Bismarck was immediate.

Ralf Maraun (52), was Ozil's first coach, and as the pictures of him in DJK's tiny bar area trigger a flood of reminiscence. He recalls: "The first time I saw Mesut he was very small, quiet, introverted. But on the football field he was the extrovert, the very biggest player. He was the superstar of our team."

Such an impression was mirrored in results as Ozil unleashed his full range of outrageous flourishes, once scoring 10 goals in a single match.

Mirko Lange, an amiable 25-year-old now working in health insurance, was in no doubt about the prodigy he fleetingly counted as a team-mate. "You noticed he could do everything with the ball already," he says. "He was technically superb, with wonderful anticipation; he let his football speak for him."

Another important observation Fleischer made was how directly the young Mesut was influenced by his father, often to the detriment of the men trying to coach him. "He listened a lot to his dad. If the trainer said one thing, and the father said something different, Mesut would always took Mustafa's advice."

The same dynamic has endured to this day, with Mustafa taking a central role in the machinations of Mesut's move from Real Madrid. But Ozil discovered crucial formative influences outside the family unit, too.

Chief among them was Krabbe, the intense and bespectacled figure who served as his form tutor for five years from the age of 11, and who continues to be in regular contact with his ex-pupil even while Ozil commands stratospheric wealth and ever-growing exposure.

After Germany's victory over Turkey last Friday night he sent him a text message to praise an interview he had given. "And what do you know, he replied straight away to say thank you."

Krabbe's role was broadly defined at Bergen Feld, encompassing not only English lessons but the prevention of violence within the school. It was this pastoral responsibility that helped to cement the strongest of bonds.

Leading the way proudly to Ozil's old classroom he says: "I had to assess him across the board – how he played in the schoolyard, how he did in English classes. And whenever I saw him kick a ball outside my office window I thought, 'wow'. He was overwhelming in his skills. He seemed to have this ability to see everything at the same time.

"I looked at my list of students and I thought he must be two or three years older. It was so exciting to see. I had seen plenty of footballers before, when I worked for a newspaper before deciding to teach, but nothing like this."

On the question of personality Krabbe is Ozil's most strident advocate, emphasising his fundamental qualities beneath the highly-groomed exterior and the celebrity relationship with German pop star Mandy Capristo.

To illustrate, he tells the anecdote of how another of his students, again fascinated by football, turned up outside his office having failed to complete his homework. Immediately, he called Ozil, who proceeded to administer a gentle admonishment.

"As a teenager Mesut was reliable, interested in everything," he recalls.

"It was clear that he was interested in football first and foremost, so I told him, 'When you get injured, you must be sure that you can do another job, that you can learn something else'. So we said, 'Play football, develop your football character, but develop your personal character at the same time.'"


Ozil, mercifully for his future career, instead exhibited a freakish resistance to injury. Joachen Herrmann, the school's deputy headteacher, had the extra perspective of being his PE teacher, arguing: "He tended not to be hurt because he was so supple."

The dovetailing of Ozil's academic and physical development was an essential component of Bergen Feld's credo.

With 1,350 students, it is one of the largest secondary schools in Germany, and its location adjacent to Schalke's home has traditionally ensured a high-class intake of players, including national goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

While there is a palpable pride within the school at the accomplishments of Ozil, whose picture festoons almost every wall in the staff quarters, his vast salary at Arsenal threatens to have an alienating effect in his hometown.

Over at DJK Westphalia, Maraun merely shakes his head at the mention of the €50m figure. "To my mind, no player in the world is worth that amount of money," he says. "It's so extreme, it's very difficult to steer the player in the right direction after that."

Maraun's distaste for the fee is triggered in part by his resentment that DJK stand to receive no slice of the rewards from the gigantic transfer, Ozil having left their care fractionally too early. By contrast, even Rot-Weiss Essen, whom he represented when he was just 15, are able to claim a nominal share. "We get nothing from this move," he says, mournfully. "It's bad."

Lange at his side concurs. "We look at him on TV and think that this is all great, but at the same time note that there is nothing coming back to the club. That's a bit of a shame."


Krabbe, however, insists that for all the latest headlines suggesting Ozil's greed in leaving Madrid, he could not be any less driven by the notion of financial gain.

"With all my students, if they end up being a footballer, a lorry driver, or working in a bakery, I don't care," he says. "I'm interested in the person. And I know that Mesut took excellent guidance from Mustafa, who was a model for him – a man of Muslim belief, down-to-earth and a great person to talk to.

"I tried to extend the lessons that his father taught him. When he left our school I told him, 'It should not be your aim to have a million euros within a short period of time'. I always emphasised to him that money should have no significance, because if he was such a good player, then he would have the money in any case.

"If it was €1m or €100m, he shouldn't care, and he doesn't. All I left him with was that he must have an idea. 'What do I want? Do I want to have a family, a home? Should I spend the money, should I save it?' You must have an idea of your life, a dream, and this is what he followed."

In this small piece of Gelsenkirchen, Ozil's stock could scarcely be higher.

He might have become a celebrity of stratospheric proportions elsewhere, but here they remember him as the little boy from Bismarck who left town for all the right reasons. Whatever glory should accrue to Ozil at Arsenal is reflected doubly back here in the Ruhr. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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