Mesut Özil is a polarizing figure. Some see him as one of the best left-footed players in the world, perhaps the last true No. 10 capable of finding certain spaces in which to play precise passes, but one who has also found himself watching from the stands in recent months.
Others think the stands are precisely where he belongs and accuse him of having a bad attitude. Many fans praise him for his charity projects and the fact that he is committed to trying to help the Uighurs, his fellow Muslims, in China. His critics point to his apparent close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and see the accusations that Özil leveled at Germany when he quit the national team after the 2018 World Cup as having been over the top.
Özil has always wandered between the worlds of sports and politics, and seldom have his actions been without controversy. And so there are two points of view on his impending move to 19-time Turkish champions Fenerbahce.
At Arsenal, they’ll be happy to get rid of a high-priced spectator that they’d even omitted from their 25-man Premier League squad. Özil is reportedly on €20 million ($24.3 million) a year at Arsenal, more than any other player has ever earned at the club.
At Fenerbahce, on the other hand, the prospect of bringing in Özil has captivated the fans. For days now, Fenerbahce supporters have been flooding the comment sections on social media platforms with yellow and blue hearts, giving him a warm digital welcome.
A fresh start
“Everyone is excited. Özil has been a top player in his role for years. It would be a big signing, of course,” Turkish sports journalist Ugur Karakullukcu told DW.
For his part, Özil has been saying all the right things on Twitter, proclaiming that Fenerbahce was his favorite club when he was growing up in Gelsenkirchen.
“Every German-Turkish person supports a Turkish team when they grow up in Germany,” he wrote. “And mine was Fenerbahce. Fenerbahce is like Real Madrid in Spain. The biggest club in the country.”
It’s a fresh start in Turkey for Özil, and some say it was inevitable. After all, that mega-salary of his doesn’t make him an easy sell.
Clubs in the Turkish Süper Lig, on the other hand, have long been eyeing Özil, who is set to join a long list of aging stars who moved there when they found that they were no longer in demand in Europe’s top leagues. Among them have been Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Mario Gomez (Besiktas), Robin van Persie (Fenerbahce) and Falcao (Galatasaray). Özil, however, is the most glamorous name – and has the added bonus of Turkish origin.
“The presidents here in Turkey behave like poker players,” Karakullukcu explained. “But they go all-in every year and promise star players to their fans.”
Fenerbahce President Ali Koc, a Harvard graduate and one of Turkey’s richest businessmen, wants to finance the transfer through his company, Koc Holding, which is the country’s largest corporation. Media mogul Acun Ilicali, who is also involved, is said to have close ties to both Özil and Turkish President Erdogan.
However, the club has been having financial trouble recently and is heavily in debt. Max Kruse terminated his contract with Fenerbahce and moved to Bundesliga outfit Union Berlin prior to the start of the season. He claims Fenerbahce had stopped paying the bulk of his salary.
Be that as it may, Özil’s transfer is expected to go through – if not this month, then in the summer transfer window. There are also rumors that Özil is prepared to buy out his own contract if this will help speed things up.
But there are also sporting question marks: Will Özil be able to hit the ground running in an aging squad that lacks pacey strikers? Fenerbahce last won the league in 2014, and other Süper Liga clubs have overtaken the club, including current champions Basaksehir, whose owners allegedly have ties to Erdogan’s AKP party, as well as old Istanbul rivals Galatasaray.
“Fenerbahce’s squad is built with a win-now mentality and Özil has to deliver straight from the start,” Karakullukcu said. “But will he be able to slide seamlessly into the team? I have my doubts.”
As Özil experienced firsthand with Arsenal, euphoria can also quickly turn to ridicule, malice or even hatred, particularly in Turkish soccer.
“The Turkish press is unscrupulous,” said Okan Altiparmak, a filmmaker and Fenerbahce fan. “And on social media, there is a battle for supremacy. It’s like propaganda, you’re constantly being attacked.”
And when things are going particularly badly, the anger of the supporters is directed not against a club’s rivals, but against their own players.
At least that shouldn’t be new for Özil; pressure and hostility have been a constant companion throughout his 15 years in professional football. Özil recently rejected the notion of a return to the club of his youth, Schalke, saying Turkey and the United States were at the top of his list of possible destinations.
The 32-year-old has long since turned his back on Germany anyway and regards himself as a global star who communicates through his own channels, preferably in English and Turkish, reaching his millions of fans. Skillfully guided by an advisor, he has recently repeatedly spoken out on political issues and portrayed himself as a job savior during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since his very public and bitter resignation from the German national team, he has very much shifted his focus to Turkey, so this move should come as no surprise.
Close ties to Erdogan
This is also true of his private life: In 2019, Özil married Swedish-Turkish model Amine Gülse in Istanbul, where President Erdogan was his best man. The Özils are a celebrity couple in Turkey, where they have been filling the gossip pages in the tabloids for some time. Özil has also bought a house not far from Fenerbahce’s home ground, in the Kisikli district of the city, where Erdogan also lives.
There may be a few more public appearances with the president, who is considered a closet Fenerbahce fan, despite Basaksehir being so successful right now with its AKP party connections. Erdogan won’t be the only one watching closely to see how Özil does in his new home. The question now is whether Özil will be able to live up to the high expectations placed upon him – and again make the headlines on the sports pages.