11 June 2014

Özil lashes out at the armchair warriors

After so much coverage of the silly season and spending so much time thinking about what might happen, it's a nice change of speed to discuss something that did happen: Mesut Özil was apparently booed during Germany's friendly match against Cameroon. Fans may have been booing the decision to sub him off, as they did back in March, but his lackluster performance against Cameroon raises the tetchier possibility that, yes, they were booing the player and not Löw, the coach. After the injuries incurred by other players in similarly pointless friendlies, I'm not sure if the booing renders Germany fans as spoilt, sadistic, or masochistic.

As I suspected. Laying down on the job. Loafer.
Yes, I know that each squad needs a tune-up and some time together, but c'mon. A few names tossed off might recalibrate expectations: Oxlade-Chamberlain. Ribéry. Neymar. Reus. Those are just a few players who got injured in friendlies in the last few weeks. Take into account key players who have suffered injuries in matches of meaning and you start to wonder just why Germany fans were so wound up: Falcao. Ronaldo. Costa. Walcott. Benteke.Suarez. Neuer. There are some pretty expensive names in that list, players who were vital to their country's World Cup ambitions. Germany's squad as a whole is already a bit ragged, with Khedira, Lahm, Schmelzer, Schweinsteiger, and Klose also looking for fitness. Just how much punishment can Germany take? How much pain do German fans want their players to suffer before playing a single group-stage minute?

So Özil didn't scintillate against Cameroon. So what? He's still playing his way back to full fitness, and Joachim Löw even admitted that he's not yet ready. Instead of bemoaning a jaded performance, perhaps Germany's fans could take into account the idea that Özil, like others, was marshalling his energy rather than mailing it in. Maybe they're demanding more from him, given that his season with Arsenal did not include a lengthy foray into the Champions League cauldron? Whatever the case may be, it startles me that they would boo and whistle one of their finest players for taking his foot off the gas. In a friendly.

Here's what Özil had to say on the subject:
I am no longer a talent but an experienced player who has played in three countries. I take responsibility. The FA Cup win means that I have won three finals. I was voted Germany player of the year three times running and in the team of the year in England
always by the fans. And that is also important to me. I feel that I have the trust of Joachim Löw and Arsène Wenger and that I have earned it...I am now 25 years old and at that age every footballer in the world plays in a different way to what he did when he was 21. And, of course, my role at Arsenal is different insomuch that I have more responsibility than I did at Real [Madrid]. And I like that.
Some of it does come off as if the booing has touched a nerve; rattling off the awards and accolades sounds a bit like Özil might be wounded by the attacks. He is, after all, a player who loves what he does and wants very much to do it well, but he's also suffering the gap between expectations (ours) and reality. No player can rise to the fans' expectations every single time he takes the pitch. In particular, Özil suffers from a broader chasm after leaving Real Madrid, where he could all but guarantee that Ronaldo would put his passes into the back of the net (or at least on frame) with lethal precision, and joining Arsenal, where he would have to fret over whether Giroud would fluff or squib it away.

For lack of a better analogy, it's as if Özil is the master chef, conjuring delicacies heretofore unseen, untasted, but he depends on the waiter—be it Ronaldo or Giroud—to get it to the table. No matter how exquisite his work in the kitchen may be, no matter how succulent or savory his offerings are, they're only as good as the man who carries them from the kitchen to the table. Suffice it to say, Ronaldo lays the plates on the table more often and with more aplomb than does Giroud, who's just as likely to drop everything in your lap as he is to spill it on the table. This of course pertains more to Özil's performance at the club level, but the carry-over persists.

Özil's apparently diffident performance against Cameroon comes against the backdrop of his season with Arsenal, where his delivery did drop. He delivered a mere nine assists, down from 13 the year before with Real Madrid. However, in six fewer appearances, he did still offer 67 key passes, down from 78 the year before. In other words, he's still offering up subliminity. It's just not front-and-center enough to get its just desserts.

Then, there is of course his personality. Whereas other players are demonstrative and exuberant, Özil is, well, a bit of a milquetoast. Ronaldo scores from a meaningless penalty in a match his team has already won, and he rips off his jersey and runs around like a hyperactive chimpanzee (the worst kind, I'm told). Özil, by contrast, seems tentative in victory and abject in defeat, which can easily be misconstrued as apathy.

Keep in mind, German fans (among others), when you're watching Özil, you're not watching a diva who specializes in domineering and grandstanding. You're watching a more-reclusive, idiosyncratic type who shies away from, rather than pandering to, the limelight. This demands a bit more patience and a lot less petulance from us. Prove that you're up to it.

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