The Arsenal midfielder may have played for Germany but his love for the land of his ancestors has always been a driving force for him
In the spring of 2018, two events took place that would change Mesut Ozil’s life forever.
Firstly, after 22 years in charge of Arsenal, Arsene Wenger resigned from his role as the Gunners’ manager. The coach who had brought Ozil to north London and staunchly defended him from external criticism was gone.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Ozil slowly fell out of favour at the Emirates Stadium, with both Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta unwilling to build their teams around him as Wenger once had.
Ozil’s eventual departure from Arsenal has felt inevitable for a while, but the fact that his next destination is set to be Fenerbahce can be linked back to that second life-altering moment back in 2018.
Ozil, along with Germany team-mate Ilkay Gundogan and Everton striker Cenk Tosun, was pictured meeting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan while the politician was in London.
A third generation German-Turk, Ozil’s talents on the pitch had helped strengthen the integration of Turkish immigrants into German society. He had become more than just a footballer in that sense, even if Turkish nationalists were unhappy at him opting to represent the land of his birth over that of his family’s roots.
But his decision to be photographed with Erdogan, which was regarded by many as a sign of him taking sides in the ongoing tensions between the two countries, turned the tables dramatically when it came to how Ozil was viewed.
German nationalists now saw him as a traitor, while those in Turkey who once criticised him now hailed him as a hero
Whether Ozil’s meeting with Erdogan was meant as a political statement or not, there is no doubt that it shifted the narrative surrounding him in the two countries he calls home.
“During my childhood, my mother taught me always to be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day,” Ozil said in a statement following his decision to retire from international football in the wake of the 2018 World Cup, during which he was a victim of racist abuse from Germany supporters following the Erdogan saga.
“For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies.”
He added: “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement but now I don’t. I have always given everything for my team-mates, the coaching staff and the good people of Germany.
“But when high-ranking DFB officials treat me as they did, disrespect my Turkish roots and selfishly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough.
”That is not why I play football, and I will not sit back and do nothing about it. Racism should never, ever be accepted.”
Though Ozil’s ties to Germany will never truly be cut, it is clear now more than ever that with his career winding down, he is keen to reconnect with his roots having recently married former Miss Turkey winner, Amine Gulse, with whom he has a 10-month-old daughter.
Fenerbahce were the club Ozil supported as a child, while his boyhood icon was Fener’s legendary forward Ridvan Dilmen, and though there is no question that the Super Lig outfit are only able to sign him because of his recent fall from grace on the pitch, he is joining them for off-the-field reasons too.
Turkish football has been a paradise for No.10s of the past. Veteran playmakers such as Gheorge Hagi, Ariel Ortega, Guti and Wesley Sneijder have all had stops in the country before the end of their careers.
Some, therefore, will paint Ozil with the brush of being a washed-up has-been merely because he is no longer playing in in one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues.
But this move is different. Ozil would be forgiven for believing that he is no longer wanted back in Germany, and making a new life in Turkey at least gives him somewhere to call home that is familiar to him.
Turkish poet Ismet Ozel once wrote, “Go back to home, back to song, back to your heart.”
Ozil’s heart is – and perhaps always has been – in Turkey. Now it will be his home too.