There’s no place quite like home for Mesut Ozil.
His journey has taken him from Germany to Spain and, most recently, England where he has fully settled into life in London. Sipping on a tulip-shaped glass of traditional Turkish tea in his favourite north London restaurant, the 28-year-old tells Goal’s Arsenal correspondent Chris Wheatley of his deep affection for the multiculturalism on offer in the capital and his love for a particular Turkish eatery near Golders Green tube station.
“I simply love to live here. London is a world city. There is so much you can do,” says Ozil. “There are many different cultures here and I just feel very, very comfortable. The club is huge and I enjoy playing for Arsenal. Living in London is awesome.
“I like the people [in Likya Ocakbasi Restaurant ]. They are part of my family now. And, of course, the Turkish food. It is very similar to what my mother always cooks. That's why I like being here, I love these Turkish meals.
“I am very, very proud I am also Turkish and both of my parents are from Turkey. I was born in Germany and grew up there. By playing football I learned my different cultures and that is an advantage if you grow up as a person. You get a different view on certain things. I am very, very thankful I was able to pick the best from many cultures.”
Ozil is unmistakably proud of his Turkish heritage and alludes to the country several times during our interview. He illustrates his rise from a scrawny youngster playing in a fenced-off, concrete ‘monkey cage’ to winning the 2014 World Cup with Germany in his new autobiography ‘Gunning For Greatness’ , detailing how he dealt with prejudice as he fought to earn a professional contract and the fame which followed soon after he became a recognisable face during his teenage years.
“I was never a guy who liked to be in the centre of attention. Sure, today people recognise me everywhere. But I always simply wanted to be with my people. It was like that in school, too. I just went there and tried to do my best. But in the back of my head there was always football. That was my life and my love. On the pitch I always want to be successful and do everything perfectly. That's how I flourish and my attitude changes. I simply love to play.
“I was always a calm guy. I know what I am capable of and I don’t let myself get unsettled by other people. During my childhood and my career there were always people who liked me and people who disliked me. I know pretty well who I am and who supports me. Of course fame is a factor when you play for the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues in the world. You have only a little privacy. Still, I am trying to spend as much time as I can with my family and friends, and try to enjoy my life the way I want to.”
Growing up in Bulmke Hullen, a small Turkish enclave of Gelsenkirchen, was by no means an unhappy childhood for Ozil even if material privileges were far and few between. His mother was a cleaner and his father a factory worker, and when asked about the ‘affenkäfig’ or concrete 'monkey cage' which he grew up playing in, he claims that it has helped his own development at manoeuvring on the pitch in tight spaces. I point out that there are few similar pitches in England and ask whether English football could benefit from such a raw addition to its youngsters development.
“Indeed I did not notice many pitches in London that can be compared to the "Affenkäfig“. Still, there are similar pitches here, too - but with lawn or artificial grass.
“Where I started, the surroundings were not easy. The floor was cement and, if you fell, you immediately started bleeding. But it helped. Especially, because I always played against older boys on that very little space. You need to be skilled for that. For my development this was precious.
“Many young players or their parents come to me. No matter where I am, they ask me how it was with me. And that's a message I want to convey in my book: The most important thing when you are a kid is to have fun. If you are talented and you have a little luck, you will march your own way and nobody can stop you. You need to work on yourself, have self-belief and have fun. Then, you can make your dream come true.”
Ozil’s wizardry at the 2010 World Cup announced his arrival on the world stage, even more so to England supporters who witnessed the German run Gareth Barry ragged throughout the 4-1 defeat. Despite several experienced players retiring over the past three years, Ozil will be one of the veterans on display if Germany qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia and he believes that having complete confidence in your own players is the philosophy which has worked so successfully for Die Mannschaft.
“Fresh, young players just keep coming through,” he beams. “In Germany there was a big focus on working with young players and talents were given the chance to establish themselves in the first teams. I wished it would be like that with English clubs, too. Sure, the clubs here have so much money due to the TV deals and can buy almost every player. But if you look at the Bundesliga and our national team you can see it is possible to be successful when you trust your own talents.”
Arsenal’s ‘No.10’ created more goals than any other Premier League player last season and, despite being unable to replicate that scintillating form this season, he still boasts 11 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. When shown a video of Japanese Arsenal fans singing his now famous chant in an Arsenal-themed pub in Tokyo, Ozil’s face immediately lights.
“I have played for a few clubs, but to have my own song, like that one in Tokyo, is a unique thing for me. When I heard it for the first time I had goose bumps and I still get them. You just are really thankful for that amazing support.”
Then there was that magnificent goal against Ludogorets in the Champions League. Many have claimed it is one of the best goals of Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club. Ozil agrees that he hasn’t scored any better than the deft strike in Sofia.
“I’m proud of quite a few of my goals but that one against Ludogorets was like on PES! Passing three or four opponents and then scoring. When I watch it, I think it was the best goal of my career."
But, for every happy moment, there comes the inevitability of a sad one. February’s Champions League humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich was described as ‘one of the darkest hours’ of Ozil’s career to date. His own performance was brought into question by various journalists and pundits, who claimed he ‘didn’t run enough’ and criticised the former Real Madrid man’s ‘negative’ body language. The backlash following Arsenal’s dismal night in Munich prompted Ozil’s agent Dr Erkut Sogul to publicly defend his client who he believed was being used as a ‘scapegoat’ for the Gunners’ 5-1 first-leg defeat. Ozil maintains the self-belief in his ability which has put him good stead throughout his career and says he won’t change his body language for anyone.
“Some people like me, some people don't. Some people look at my body language and think I don't care. But that's me. I won't change my body language or my style of play drastically anymore,” he states.
“Expectations on me were very high everywhere [I have been], because I am a player who can make the difference. You have to deal with that. There will always be criticism and there will always be praise. But what matters is what the manager tells me. I have said that numerous times. But what I can't understand is when people say: 'Look, he does not push anymore' or 'He does not run enough'. If you look at my numbers you can see I run a lot and I show a good attitude.
“The disappointment [against Bayern] was very, very big, obviously. Especially as it was 1-1 at half-time. To lose that high during the second half was bitter. Not just for me, but for the whole team. And we knew ahead of the second leg that it would be extremely difficult, especially against such a strong team.
“Of course we had high hopes. In my opinion Bayern was not as strong as they were in the years before. We expected to achieve something. The disappointment was huge, also because I think we have the quality to go far in the competition. Unfortunately it did not happen.”
Players react differently to defeats and Ozil describes the pressure he was under at Real Madrid as incomparable to what he currently endures at Arsenal. Indeed, it is a different kind of pressure he’s under at Emirates Stadium but he is convinced that it has helped develop his own elite mentality that nothing except winning is good enough.
“At the start of my career I thought about it [after you’ve lost a game] a lot and I was angry for a long time. Of course it is still similar if we lose a game. But you should not think too much about what happened, but look ahead. Life goes on and you have successful matches and you have bad matches. You just have to keep going full throttle.
“You can't compare the expectations at Real with any other club. Neither with Arsenal nor the national team. In Madrid you have to win every match. If you get a draw, even against Barcelona, you failed. Especially as a young player you have to develop accordingly and take on that mentality. Jose Mourinho helped me a lot with that. He supported me and always wanted the best for me. When I look back, there were many nice moments at Real and I made many friends there.”
Our conversation inevitably turns to the contract talks between player and club which will resume at the end of the season. Ozil maintains that one of the key factors in signing a new deal will be whether Gunners boss Arsene Wenger also signs a new contract this summer, as the Frenchman was an integral part in bringing him to the club in 2013 — but the club’s ambition will influence his decision too.
“It does not only depend on the manager,” says Ozil. “Of course he was the one who convinced me to join Arsenal and he was a main factor for me to come here. He is a very experienced coach who made Arsenal one of the best clubs in the world. You must have respect for him, because he is a great manager. But I do not decide whether the manager stays or not. What's important for me is that we develop as a team and reach our goals.”
How much does money play a part? Ozil revealed in his book that, when his agent informed him of an astronomical £100 million net offer over a period of five years from a team in the Chinese league, it took him less than three minutes to reject the bid.
“Money never played a big role for me in football. I play football because I love it. Sure, you do not earn peanuts and the offer from China was tempting and interesting. But as I said: Money is not everything. I want to win titles and I have my goals I want to achieve. That is more important than money. That's why I said from the beginning, that China is not an option for me.”
Ozil’s boyhood Turkish club Fenerbahce have made advances to sign him over the years but it’s not something he is thinking about right now. Interestingly, he talks about how keeping a close network of friends and family in his inner circle has helped him stay grounded and shines a light on how very few footballers are able to call on ‘real’ friends when they’re needed most.
“Many people ask me that question [about Fenerbahce], my family, my friends. When they hear something like that they keep telling me: 'Join that club' or 'Go there!', but at the moment I have a contract at Arsenal and I do not think about Turkey or other leagues. You can never know what is going to happen in the future. I feel very, very comfortable here. We'll see about the rest.
“I became a professional when I was 16 years old. Many people came to me pretending to be my 'best friend' and only wanting the best for me. With me everybody is welcome but it is normal that over the years you have only those people close to you that you can trust 100 per cent. Sometimes they see things that I do not notice. I am happy that it is like this. That I have my friends I grew up with and my family. They support me, no matter if I am a successful football player or not. They love me because I am Mesut and I am proud of that. Many other football players have few real friends.
“I like to spend time at home with my friends and family, especially my dog and my cousin. My friends and my family visit me regularly for longer intervals. We go out to dinner or to the cinema. If we have a few days off I fly somewhere, mostly into the sun. But, apart from that, I am usually at home.”
The role and definition of a traditional ‘No.10’ player has evolved since Ozil first made his league debut for Schalke over a decade ago. He feels most comfortable operating behind the forward players but acknowledges that many managers are now favouring athletic wide playmakers and the demands of his position can change depending on formation or style of play. As for comparisons with Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp, the 28-year-old is flattered to be considered in the same bracket as the Dutchman — but he would prefer to be recognised for his own unique footballing abilities.
“I always want to control the game, give assists and help my team. It was like that with me from the start. In my position you have many possibilities playing forward: You can demand the balls, make telling passes or score yourself. I feel the most comfortable playing as a number 10 because I’ve done it since I was young.
“Of course that makes me proud and it is an honour [to be compared with Bergkamp]. Bergkamp is a living legend at Arsenal and he was an amazing football player. But I do not want to compare myself with anybody. I have my own style and I’ve had it since I was a kid. I am proud of these comparisons, but I am Mesut Ozil.”