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?
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.
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.
Success in Spain
"It isn't easy looking after an international star like Mesut," says 44-year-old Mustafa Özil, stressing the importance of good nutrition and "personal wishes." The agency has five to seven employees, depending on whether or not you include the two housekeepers in Madrid.
There's a media consultant, Ludwigsburg-based PR agent Roland Eitel, who also works with Löw and his predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann. Then there are two general minders who live with the star in Madrid -- his cousin Serdar and a friend. Özil refers to the pair as his "best colleagues." According to Özil's media consultant, one of them looks after the house, the other is mainly responsible for the car -- that is, driving the player to training sessions and the like.
Finally, there's Özil's 27-year-old brother Mutlu, whose job his father and boss Mustafa says is to "coordinate" the company.
Mustafa Özil has invited six journalists for lunch at a Spanish restaurant in Leipzig. He appears nervous. The huge dining room is almost deserted. It's the day on which the German side is playing a friendly against Israel in the city as a warm-up for the European Championship. Mustafa wants to talk about his son's success at his Spanish club. That's why he chose the Café Madrid for the meeting.
The journalists are more interested in talking about Germany's training camp in the south of France, though. One mentions a visit to Cannes during the film festival, commenting on the short skirts worn by the women. "Fresh meat," Mustafa Özil says.
He's brought along another person from the marketing agency; an Italian called Deni Biancolin who is clearly well-connected in the Italian football world. It's not exactly certain what use he is to his client, who plays in the Spanish league. Biancolin gets the drinks. It turns out he's a trained sommelier with his own ice cream parlor in Gelsenkirchen.
Biancolin orders Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine. When the mixed tapas arrive, he asks whether any of them contain pork, giving his boss the relevant information. Mustafa is wearing a dark-blue linen sports coat over a shirt that's slightly too tight. He's just come from the Turkish holiday resort of Bodrum, and says it's part of his philosophy: "50 percent work, 50 percent leisure." He twirls his wine glass as if it contained cognac.
Eventually the conversation does turn to soccer. Players like Mesut Özil are like artists, Mustafa says. Why should they drop back, plug holes and defend? Next they'll be asked to "wash clothes." Real artists like Picasso and Van Gogh didn't have to do that. "Or Moët," says Biancolin the sommelier.
Mesut Özil already has more than 5 million fans on Facebook, but his marketing team bemoans the fact that the games he plays with his Spanish club aren't shown live on television in Germany and the media don't report enough about him. They say his former managers didn't do a good enough job positioning him because professional consultants are only interested in the financial side.
Fazeli brought advertisers in, but Özil's father recently rejected two of the sponsorship deals that were offered. One of them, €200,000 from an auto manufacturer, he dismissed as too low. After all, Real Madrid players have to give half of their marketing income to their club.
French player Karim Benzema, one of Özil's club teammates, now has a contract with Hyundai.
Özil's father claims Fazeli merely used Mesut as a way to get two other clients, Turkish players Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin, into Real Madrid. Altintop once said in an interview that Özil's inclusion in the German national squad wasn't a sign of successful integration, but the result of his value on the market and his career.
A few weeks after the meeting in Leipzig, Özil's father says on the phone that they are now in contact with a globally-operating engineering company that's keen to sponsor Mesut. He says he wanted to be in Zoppot, Poland, where the DFB officials and some of the players' wives are staying during the Euro 2012, but meetings have come up. The Turkish embassy has extended an invitation, he says.
Mustafa couldn't have flown to Lviv for Germany's opening game against Portugal anyway: When he got to the Gdansk airport he discovered he'd left his passport at the hotel. Biancolin and Özil's brother Mutlu also traveled to the second match without their boss. By this time, Mustafa Özil was already back home. According to media consultant Eitel, Mustafa hadn't enjoyed being at the European Championship, as he had seen too little of the competition.
All that remained to represent him was his business card, which describes him as "General Director," and his function as "business advertising" under the newly-designed logo of Özil Marketing. "ÖZIL" is written in the black, red and gold of the German flag, and appears in front of a globe encircled by a laurel wreath. The center of the "Ö" is formed by the silhouette of father and son standing back-to-back. The two are now united as part of a brand.
An old acquaintance of Özil's, who prefers to remain anonymous, claims there has been only one significant change since the family-run football business was set up -- Özil's father is in the newspaper more often.
When someone on Twitter suggested Mesut Özil wasn't a proper German because of his Turkish roots, it was Mustafa's statement that was quoted. Mustafa Özil brought in a lawyer, and ordered him to press charges against the unknown author of the tweet. The lawyer wanted to give an interview too, but Özil's media consultant was able to prevent him from doing so.
The sun is shining over the idyllic green soccer field that is the home ground of Firtinaspor club in Gelsenkirchen, in the Bulmke-Hüllen district of the city. It is a Sunday in May. Firtinaspor is pitted against local rival Sportfreunde 07 in district league A of the 9th division of the Bundesliga. Entrance to the game costs €3, a cup of coffee €1. Firtina means "storm" in Turkish. Club manager Atilla Öz says the club is a welfare project. Most of the team's young players live in Bismarck, the working-class area from which Mesut Özil stems. Today he is held up as a shining example. His success is helping get kids off the street.
Özil's brother and coordinator Mutlu theoretically plays for Firtinaspor, but the manager says Mutlu only comes to home games and doesn't have time for training sessions anymore because he has just built himself "a little house."
Mutlu makes a brief appearance, wearing sunglasses and a white cap as if he, not his brother, were the famous player. He says he can't say anything about the agency's work, explaining that the media consultant does that. He goes back to his vehicle to get the telephone number. His black sports car is parked outside the stadium, his dark-haired wife sitting inside.
During the game, a spectator says he comes from the same Turkish village as the Özils, in the country's rural district of Devrek. He says the nice thing about Özil's success as a professional is that everyone has stayed so down-to-earth, even his father and brother.
In Gdansk, Mesut Özil smiles under the elaborate plastic lamp, his former shyness all but forgotten. He is relieved he can finally speak about football. Özil says he plays soccer with his "body and soul," and he's pleased about his father's agency, which looks after him. "I think it's great because I now have experienced people around me who can take a load off my shoulders. A father wants what's best for his son. That's the most important thing, I think."
Özil senior purports to be Mesut's harshest critic. He says he once ordered a youth coach to substitute his son during a game. But his son says: "He doesn't really criticize me."
Mustafa Özil loves his son's new-found independence. He says he's started cooking -- menemen, for example, a Turkish dish made with eggs, tomatoes and garlic sausage. "I could cook before," Mesut Özil says. "Now and again I would watch my mother." He says he cooks Turkish dishes, while his buddy Khedira cooks Arab ones, and "both taste really good."
What does he think about the fact that -- as his father claims -- the media report so little about his games with Real Madrid? Özil says that's a shame, of course, but on the other hand: "I rarely read. Up to now I haven't noticed they aren't reporting much. If that's the case, I don't know, perhaps it will be different in future. No idea."
His father recently organized a photo shoot for Mesut that appeared in a magazine dedicated to soccer and fashion. In one photo, the player's legs are ensconced in tight black pants with a flower motif, his feet and calves sheathed in knee-high boots. He holds his face up to the sun with his eyes closed, a scarf is slung around his neck.
The text accompanying the photos rave about his "deep-black shimmering Winnetou haircut" (in reference to popular German writer Karl May's fictional Apache warrior). The look "highlights his androgynous traits," it says. And, "in the heat of battle," Özil's expression is reminiscent of "Michelangelo's sibylline eyes." The Spanish photographer, the text relays, also noted the similarity between Özil and Italian silent-film actor Rudolph Valentino.
Özil's father Mustafa likes that, especially the pictures. "Shot from below! That's top notch," he says. "It makes him look great, like a model."
His son will be contesting the semifinal of the Euro 2012 in Warsaw on Thursday. Mesut Özil says he's on the right path.