Monday 11 November 2019

Ozil ready to be new Zidane

Sid Lowe

He has been likened to a tortoise, a hare, an owl, a clownfish and a chameleon, and it all started in a monkey's cage. It could be one of Aesop's fables. Instead, it is Ozil's. The story of the Turk who represents a new Germany and a new Real Madrid, yet also represents something older, something disappearing.

Mesut Ozil: future and past in one, a street footballer whose director general, Jorge Valdano, believes "will define the next decade" and whose team-mate Xabi Alonso describes as "the kind of player you don't find these days". The playmaker who joined Madrid for €15m.

That figure was possibly last summer's best business. And for one of the World Cup's finest performers, who, eight months on, stakes a claim to be La Liga's outstanding player. Certainly beyond Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He is so good they are likening him to Zinedine Zidane.

In Madrid, the comparison is powerful and Ozil is still in his first year at a new club and in a new country. "Zidane was world-class," he says, "I haven't done anything yet. I'm here to develop, I still have so much to prove."

Except that is partly the point. Even when Ozil's talent has been seen only in flashes, they have been flashes that win over a Spanish crowd -- more enamoured with artistry than elsewhere. "He's the kind of player who goes down well," Valdano says, "even opponents like watching him." It is the relative consistency that has surprised, the speed of adaptation.

"Ozil," says Alvaro Arbeloa, "is a scandalously good player. I wouldn't say the media jumped on board too quickly. In fact, you've taken your time to realise just how good he is. Then again, we see him in training every day, you only see him once a week. We knew he was special straight away.

"Sometimes it can seem like Ronaldo is the only player here, but there are other good players too -- and Ozil is bueno, bueno."

Ozil always has been. The man a computer game called the owl, a commentator claimed had chameleon eyes -- bulging but all-seeing -- and a German philosopher described as owning a turtle's face, began playing in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr valley, where he was born in 1988, the son of Turkish immigrants. The mines have closed down now, but the tower still looms over Bismark; a largely Turkish neighbourhood, with a small, rough gravel football pitch enclosed by hostile wire fences, where the ball never went out and games never ended. A pitch they called the Affenkafig: the monkey cage.

Ozil was the Bundesliga's outstanding performer last year, providing 17 assists. Spain was a step again. On the opening day, he was left out of the Real Madrid side, Jose Mourinho admitting he could not converse with the playmaker. Between them, his staff spoke a handful of languages, but German was not one of them.

Meanwhile, Ozil's English is limited; even his German is not perfect -- his career began with his father shouting instructions in Turkish.

It is not as if he had made it this far without resolve. But Ozil, far from outgoing -- a man who says his favourite film is The Karate Kid and is a quiet, practising Muslim -- was dismissed. Even those enamoured by his football in Germany thought he would struggle. He is only a kid -- he turns 23 next season -- and the pressure would be huge. The journey from the monkey cage to the bear pit was a long one.


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