Life, it is sometimes said, imitates art, and there are few places in life where this is more true than in football. Take Mesut Özil, for example: a player who has made a name for himself living between the lines, searching out the pockets of space within which he can work his magic. In life, Özil has similarly found himself between the lines, often not fitting into the easy paradigms we like to impose on people. In the end, Özil emerges as a mercurial figure, almost tragic but always brilliant.
This complexity is underwritten by his background. ‘My family and I will always be Turkish but I was born and I live in Germany. I feel more comfortable in a Germany shirt,’ Özil acknowledged after confirming his commitment to the German National Team. Growing up in Gelsenkirchen to immigrant parents, the young Özil will have been acutely aware of his disjointed place in society: culturally Turkish but indigenously German.
As a native of Gelsenkirchen, it was only a matter of time before Özil was picked up by local club Schalke 04. Already, the young midfielder’s prodigious talents were on show. Before long, he was described as the ‘next big thing’ and the club were desperate to lock down the services of their virtuoso playmaker. Never one to conform unquestioningly, Özil turned down an uprated contract, claiming that a yearly salary of €1.5 million would not be enough, a move which saw him become persona non grata at Schalke.
With the then-Schalke manager, Mirko Slomka, claiming that Özil would not play another match for the club, all parties were happy when Werder Bremen came in for him in January of his second season. Signing a three-year contact for a reported fee of €5 million, Bremen had found themselves a bargain and it wasn’t long before he was producing a good return on their investment. In his first full season at the club, Özil helped them to the DFB Pokal title, scoring the goal that would prove the difference between the two sides when they faced Bayer Leverkusen in the final. He was also instrumental to Bremen’s UEFA Cup campaign, a campaign which ended with a loss in the final against Shakhtar Donetsk.
A third place finish in the Bundesliga the following season and a successful World Cup in 2010 saw Real Madrid come knocking. Özil was candid: ‘When the offer came in to join Real Madrid, there is no decision to make. Let's be honest – you don't refuse this club.’ A fee of around €15 million later and the German was a member of the Real Madrid squad. Brought in as back-up for Kaká, the Brazilian’s injury woes meant that Özil was soon a regular in the side and the next season José Mourinho gave him the number 10 shirt and made him central to his plans.
Despite all the glitz and glamour of galacticos-era Real Madrid, though, Özil might look back on his time in the Spanish capital with a measure of disappointment. In his three seasons there, he would only win three trophies—the La Liga title and two domestic trophies. By his third season, he had been usurped by newly-arrived Luka Modrić and when that season finally drew to a close, he knew it was time to leave.
The club who would pick him up, Arsenal, are still his employer to the present day. There, the variable nature of his life would continue. Where there have been successes—most notably three FA Cups—there has also been disillusionment. At times, the Arsenal fan base have railed against what they perceive as a lack of commitment from the midfielder. His time at Arsenal has correlated to the decline of the club as Arsene Wenger has left to be replaced by Unai Emery.
As Özil’s own career draws to a conclusion, he remains in life as he has been on the pitch: caught between the lines, looking to inhabit the spaces where other people aren’t, not fitting in comfortably. No doubt we will look back on him and recognise his genius but even then, with his capacity to drift into space, his complexity will likely endure.