Mesut Özil: The answer is in his silence | National Team | DW | 13.07.2018
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National Team

Mesut Özil: The answer is in his silence

For days now, German football fans have been wondering when Mesut Özil is finally going to break his silence on the Erdogan affair. Given his history, it's not bound to be any time soon.

If you are looking for an explanation as to why Mesut Özil has been silent in the face of the criticism of his decision to meet with, and have his picture taken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you may want to cast your mind back 11 years.

That's when he was still a promising youngster at Schalke and found himself in disagreement with club management over which jersey number he should wear.

It was over the number 10, which, even though players no longer wear numbers according to their positions on the field, still symbolizes authority – the guy who wears number 10 is traditionally seen as the guy who pulls the strings on the pitch. But still, it was only about a jersey number, and whether he or the newly purchased Ivan Rakitic should get to wear it.

The public verbal battle wasn't fought by Özil, but by his father, Mustafa, who, at the time, was also his agent. In the end, Özil simply took a move to Werder Bremen – without uttering a public word about the affair.

Mustafa Özil remains his mouthpiece

Mesut Özil has never been a man of many words. All the 29-year-old has ever really wanted to do is kick a ball – and let others speak for him away from the pitch. Anyone who knows this about Özil will not have been surprised that he has been completely silent on the Erdogan affair. Again it is Mustafa, who is no longer his agent, who has rushed to his public defense. 

Erdogan mit Özil (picture-alliance/dpa/Uncredited/Presdential Press Service)

Mesut Özil was one of two German players with Turkish roots who met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

"In Mesut's place, I would resign," he told mass-circulation newspaper Bild in a recent interview.

The son has still not been heard from on the issue. Sure, there are a few vacation pictures making the rounds on social media, but this is simply a glimpse into the world that Mesut Özil has constructed around himself. He doesn't like to deal with problems head on; he prefers to try to sit them out.

"Mesut is a shy person, almost reclusive," Mustafa said.

Self-confident only on the football pitch

However, when it comes to his self-image as a professional footballer, he is completely different. According to the Spanish football daily Marca (and others), when he moved to Real Madrid in 2010, Özil had a clause written in his contract, that would have seen him paid a bonus of  €1 million ($1.16 million) if he won the Ballon d'Or.

His self-confidence on the pitch and above all, his pride in coming from a humble background in the western German town of Gelsenkirchen and rising to the top of the global game is an important part of Özil's psyche. In 2013, when Real Madrid signed Gareth Bale, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, all three rivals for his position in midfield, Özil retreated within himself.

Inner retreat

At first he spoke of how he wanted to win many more titles with the team, but the worse the situation became, the less he said, and (possibly) the more personally aggrieved he felt. In the end, he moved to Arsenal.

"It has come to my attention in the past few days that I do not have the confidence of the coach and management," the then-24-year-old said on the German Football Association's (DFB) website.

In situations in which Özil feels that his position is becoming untenable, he retreats to within. He feels his position is only tenable if specific conditions are met: Özil requires the unconditional support of his club as well as complete and utter loyalty from his teammates and coach. When this is not the case, he quickly becomes insecure.

Unconditional loyalty and trust demanded

Russland WM 2018 Deutschland gegen Schweden (Reuters/D. Martinez)

Özil (second from right) on the bench against Sweden

This is precisely why Özil has always felt so comfortable with the national team. Germany coach Joachim Löw had never let there be any doubt that Özil is one of his favorites. And Özil has repaid this confidence with many outstanding performances. Under Löw, Özil was always the first name on the team sheet, almost as if it was an unwritten law. So it must have hurt all the more when he was left out of the starting line-up in Germany's World Cup Group F match against Sweden. It was the first time Löw had left him on the bench since 2010. In Özil's eyes, he had been singled out as a scapegoat.

And when DFB President Reinhard Grindel later demanded a public statement from him on the Erdogan affair, and the German FA made it look like he was the main cause of the national team's failure in Russia, it probably contributed to Özil's natural inclination to keep quiet.

Goodbye national team?

So given Mesut Özil's history, it is hard to imagine that he will comment on the Erdogan affair any time soon. Given his history, it seems far more likely that right about now, he's thinking about whether to call it a day on his national team career. If he's going to say anything about it, though, it probably won't be for a while.

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