The jury is out at Arsenal on Mesut Özil and may never return. One week he is the delicate thread by which Arsenal’s present fortunes, such as they are, hang. Other weeks he is a spineless liability whose failure to track back ought to see him in front of some sort of tribunal. He is capable of the most subtle and visionary passing movement on the pitch; yet often his contribution is so subtle as to have no discernible effect on the eventual result of a game.
His reputation as a player who tended to go missing in big games preceded him. He is honest enough to include in this book a critical piece which levels the accusation against, noting that his record while at Real Madrid in their fixtures against Barcelona was pitiful. He is a World Cup-winner and played in the famous 7-1 semi-final demolition of Brazil in Belo Horizonte in 2014. And yet his most notable contribution to that match was to fail to dispatch a fairly easy chance which would have rounded up the score to an even more satisfying 8-0. He is a player cut of rare silk whose silk, critics complain, is too rarely displayed.
Özil doesn’t really explain either the provenance of his gifts or his inexplicable failings in this effectively ghostwritten autobiography, beyond remarking that “sometimes your feet feel like flippers”. In fact, the sections in which he recaps his on-field exploits are the least interesting passages. He has had his run-ins; with the “coward” David Villa and with then Schalke manager Andreas Müller, who administered a humiliating bollocking to Özil which bristles to this day.
However, while the book opens with a severe dressing room dressing down from José Mourinho, he is full of praise for the Portuguese manager (who writes the prologue to this book), regarding him as a terrific man-manager and man, a verdict with which not all at Real would concur. And naturally, his admiration for Arsène Wenger is boundless, his time at Arsenal apparently without schism.
Özil is, it’s often forgotten in Britain (if not Germany), a Muslim, though not an absolutely devout one. He did, however, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, a photo of which is pointedly included here. Özil seems to regard his ethnicity, rather than any religious dogma, as of the greatest moral and political significance.
He rightly castigates right-wing Germans who questioned his racial fitness to be included in the national team. Conversely, when Angela Merkel made a beeline for him in the dressing room after a game (he was caught embarrassingly bare chested, out of the shower) it was probably for the sake of the political photo opportunity rather than to admire his physique.
Elsewhere, we get a sense of the mind and motivation of a thoughtful but highly paid footballer. He never takes the privileges he has attained for granted, especially after a trip to visit refugees in Jordan. Yet he also had the determination to sack his own father as his agent after he botched a deal. Beneath the silk, there’s some steel.