On the Verge of Greatness Germany's Shy Football Prodigy Mesut Özil

Mesut Özil's fans expect him to break into the ranks of the world's top footballers soon. But the talented midfielder, who is marketed by his ambitious father, has had difficulty finding his stride in the 2012 European Football Championship. Was the quarterfinal game against Greece his breakthrough?

DPA

The German national football squad has hung motivational posters all around their temporary team headquarters on the edge of a forest in the Gdansk district of Oliva. There are posters in the courtyard and in the tent that houses their fitness equipment. Designed by an ad agency in Cologne especially for the German team, these posters contain inspiring messages like "We are team spirit" and "We are enthusiasm." One shows midfielder Mesut Özil in action, dribbling the ball. Above this image is a single word: "Now."

German national soccer coach Joachim Löw expressed similar sentiments last week -- albeit in slightly greater detail -- when he said he sensed "the big Özil explosion" was just around the corner. After all, he added, at the World Cup finals two years ago Germany's skilled midfielders only unfurled their creative potential in the knock-out stage of the competition.

Great things are expected of Özil, the son of second-generation Turkish immigrants, who now plays for Real Madrid. It seems everyone is waiting for the breakthrough that will earn him his rightful place among the likes of Spain's Andrés Iniesta and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Özil's father Mustafa has built up an entire apparatus for managing and marketing his shy prodigy, occasionally using the term "international star" in reference to his son.

But after the group stage of the 2012 European Football Championship, which is being held in Poland and Ukraine, 23-year-old Özil looked like he needed consoling more than anything else. When Wolfgang Niersbach, the head of the German Soccer Federation (DFB), shook Özil's hand following Germany's victory over Denmark, the young player responded with a desultory shrug of the shoulders. Last Friday's quarterfinal victory against Greece was a considerable improvement on earlier games, but did it really mark Özil's first step toward football mega-stardom?

Lackluster Performance

Özil can often be seen with a shy smile on his lips. He's proud to tell people how close he is to the big names in football back home in Madrid: "I'm in good contact with Cristiano Ronaldo," he says.

Following Germany's emphatic 4:2 win over Greece, Özil was again voted Man of the Match, just as he had been after the opening game against Portugal. The trophy, sponsored by a brewery, is in the shape of a beer tap. For the official photo with his award, he took off his headphones and told reporters somewhat shyly about German Chancellor Angela Merkel's post-game visit to the changing room: "Of course she thought today was great," he said.

After Germany's match against the Netherlands in Kharkiv, Özil snuck away without a word as if he had wanted to hide behind Sami Khedira, his teammate both at Real Madrid and on the national squad. When Khedira stopped in the catacombs below the stadium to give an autograph, Özil accidentally walked into an aluminum pillar.

Özil and Khedira are inseparable. They have the same center-parted haircut, and their dark tresses are held back during games by the same kind of headband. Khedira usually walks in front. For a stroll along the beach at the resort town of Zoppot on a recent afternoon off, Khedira wore a baseball cap, sunglasses and fashionably ripped jeans, looking like a rapper who'd brought his kid brother along. His kid brother was the international star.

At the European Football Championship, Khedira has defended his friend against criticism, insisting Özil's initially rather unremarkable performance was merely part of his development as a player. Özil had done important legwork, Khedira said. Mesut had a knack for "closing paths down" and "creating space for others," Khedira added, as though he were talking about a landscape gardener.

For a long time, this kind of unspectacular physical labor made Özil the embodiment of the entire German team. Although the side has been successful so far in the Euro 2012, it hasn't produced more than flashes of brilliance. Like Khedira, German coach Joachim Löw praises his side's game as particularly mature -- or he blames their opponents.

Casual Elegance

It's true that Özil and the others haven't had space to string together lightning-quick passes, the kind of space they were afforded by the undisciplined defense of the Argentineans at the last World Cup, for example. At the Euro 2012, the Portuguese, Dutch and Danes have defended cleverly, plagued their opponents and closed down avenues for attack.

And as Löw noted somewhat cryptically, as far as Özil is concerned, the avenues determine the passes. With this Löw means that if his teammates can't or don't run into the right space, Özil can't supply them with dream passes. In other words, to fulfill his creative potential the genius needs comparable greatness.

Thanks to the casual elegance of Özil's ball-handling, his first three touches in Germany's last group game against Denmark gave his teammates no fewer than two opportunities to score. But in the second half, his left leg slipped out from under him as he tried to score a goal with his weaker right leg. He landed hard on his backside and had little success thereafter.

Then, in the quarterfinal match against Greece, Löw fielded three nimble, powerful offensive dribblers -- Miroslav Klose, André Schürrle and especially Marco Reus -- providing Özil with the sort of caliber he needed from the very start of the game. Suddenly the Germans had space to dribble, and there were lots of off-the-ball sprints and position changes. Özil appeared to be in high spirits, even though he mistimed a poor shot at goal. Halfway through the second half, a perfect pass by Özil to Klose set up a superb goal by Reus, the man who at first seemed to overshadow Özil.

Time and again Özil produces the sort of brilliance it's easy to imagine being accompanied by trumpet fanfare. At other times his efforts seem like they need an orchestra playing in a minor key. Özil isn't someone who needs to dominate the game. Even at Real Madrid, he bides his time, waiting for the moment when he can provide fleeting touches near the goal that speed up the game.

'Body and Soul'

At the German team's hotel, the DFB staff has set up a place for Özil to give interviews in a hallway between conference rooms, where he sits under an elaborate plastic lamp. Football is first and foremost a team sport, he says, though he knows he can do better as an individual. "I'll prove it in the next games," he says. Özil often adds superfluous expressions to his statements, peppering them with words like "definitely," "of course," or a qualifying "just." That's just how it is, as though things were insignificant.

He laughs a lot, and he doesn't speak as quietly as he did at the World Cup in South Africa two years ago. Back then, at the German squad's headquarters in Pretoria, he said taking part in such a major competition had been a childhood dream. His sentences were like text messages: "Team really supported me." Describing the way he got past opponents, he used Ruhr Valley slang terms like "ausfummeln," which roughly translates to "fiddling by."

Although he was born in the city of Gelsenkirchen in western Germany, Mesut Özil, his older brother and two sisters mostly spoke Turkish at home because their mother didn't understand German well. His father, Mustafa, had come to Germany at the age of two, when Mesut's grandfather got a mining job in the Ruhr Valley. Mesut Özil showed promise as a footballer at a young age, and his father soon began looking after his talented son's affairs, hiring and firing several agents while Mesut was still playing in a youth team.

A year ago, Mustafa Özil dismissed Iranian-born Reza Fazeli, who had been advising Mesut since the age of 17. In that time Fazeli had taken Özil from Schalke to Werder Bremen and from there to Real Madrid. In 2010, he negotiated a €5 million contract that turned Özil into one of Real's big earners.

But then Mustafa Özil decided to take control. He had managed cafes and night clubs in the past, so why not his son?

There was already a special company -- Özil Marketing -- but Mustafa Özil moved its offices to a different address on Dusseldorf's Königsallee avenue and withdrew Fazeli's power of attorney. Since then, Özil Marketing has been a family-run business with the sole purpose of monetizing the soccer prodigy that is Mesut Özil. The contract with Real runs through 2016.

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