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Mesut Özil on the wrong track in Turkish football?


Ex-national player Mesut Özil moves from Fenerbahce Istanbul to Erdogan club Basaksehir. The fans of his old club celebrate the departure of the fallen world star. The transfer also has a political dimension.

At the beginning of 2021, German midfielder and world champion Mesut Özil was still being welcomed like a hero by Fenerbahce supporters. Now the same fans are celebrating his departure. It's not just Özil's disappointing performances over the past 18 months that have drawn the ire of fans. But it is also his new target: Fenerbahce's city rivals Basaksehir, a club with close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"My expectations were high, but he didn't meet them at all," says Sezgin, at the time one of a million Fenerbahce fans who watched Özil's flight from London to Istanbul live. On his arrival, Özil stressed that he was delighted to join Fenerbahce, a club he had supported all his life due to his Turkish origins. However, the 33-year-old only made 37 appearances in a season and a half at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium and has not played at all since March this year after a dispute with then caretaker coach Ismail Kartal. "I'm glad he's gone," says Sezgin. 

Another fan, Mehmet, agrees: "Not only did he fail on the pitch, he also hurt Fenerbahce off the pitch. He did everything he could to exploit his brand and boost his PR towards the fans. But that doesn't work if you don't show anything on the pitch."

Has Özil never done his best in Turkey?

Football fans like to invoke abstract factors like "passion" and "motivation" when they are unhappy with a player. But in the case of Özil, the experts agree: "Although he said that playing for Fenerbahce was his childhood dream, he never showed that passion on the pitch," sports journalist Kenan Basaran told DW. "He had enough success before he came to Turkey."

Another Turkish sports commentator, Kaan Kural, also doubts Özil's motivation to move to Turkey. "Özil never did his best here. He never intended to do that for me either," he said. "Looking at his previous statements and his career, I have the feeling that he sees Turkey as a place to retire rather than starting a new chapter here. And unfortunately, I was right about that."

However, other factors may also have contributed to Özil's poor performance in the Süper Lig. Fenerbahce employed four different coaches in 18 months. According to Basaran, none of them had the quality to handle a player of Özil's stature. He also excelled at Arsenal and before that at Real Madrid in well-organized systems surrounded by top players - Fenerbahce lacked both.

Turkish football expert Serdar Ali Celikler agrees but adds that Özil himself deserves criticism: "When it comes to Özil, he's always right and the coaches are always wrong. It was the same when he had problems with Unai Emery or Mikel Arteta [at Arsenal]. They're all wrong for Özil. Is that really possible?"

Fenerbahce's new head coach Jorge Jesus, who won three Portuguese titles with Benfica Lissobon and the Copa Libertadores with Brazilian club Flamengo Rio de Janeiro in 2019, is unlikely to have put much energy into reintegrating the former world star into the squad.

Fenerbahce's media department also rejected DW's request for a statement from the club's officials on Özil's departure, saying only that "the subject had been dropped".

The political dimension of change

As always with Mesut Özil - and Turkish football in general - his recent move has also caused a stir outside of football, reigniting debate on the relationship between football and politics in the country. Özil's new employer Basaksehir, surprise champion 2020, is inextricably linked to President Erdogan and his ruling AKP party.

The chairman of Basaksehir, Goksel Gumusdag, is a member of the AKP, and Erdogan himself makes no secret of the fact that he personally founded the association. The stadium is located in a remote western suburb of Istanbul, an AKP stronghold. The club's main fan group calls itself "1453," the year of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, a clear commitment to the nationalist and religious values ​​that characterize Erdogan's policies in the nominally secular Turkish state.

Özil also has close personal ties to Erdogan: Before the 2018 World Cup, he posed with his national team colleague Ilkay Gündogan for a controversial joint photo. A year later, Erdogan was the best man at Özil's wedding. After the criticism in Germany, Gündogan distanced himself from the Turkish president, but Özil went one step further and ended his international career after "racist" abuse, which he complained about after Germany's disastrous World Cup in Russia. "Now a club close to the Turkish government has opened its doors to him," commented reporter Basaran. "One could say that Basaksehir has signed the family's favorite son."

Taken out of the line of fire

Özil is not the first Erdogan supporter to sign with Basaksehir. In 2018, Turkey midfielder Arda Turan joined Basaksehir on loan after falling out of favor at FC Barcelona, ​​in part over his public support for Erdogan's referendum campaign the year before. Erdogan was also the best man at Turan's wedding.

So has Basaksehir become a safe haven for pro-Erdogan footballers whose careers have stalled? "It's impossible to give an exact answer," says Celikler, adding: "But let's think about it: Turan was sacked by Barcelona because he openly supported Erdogan, so they transferred him to Basaksehir where they protect him Özil was criticized in Germany for his photo with Erdogan and, he said, found himself practically left out of the national team. They couldn't allow him to be a victim and since it didn't work out at Fenerbahce they took him after he fetched Basaksehir."

Wherever he has played, Özil has garnered immense support from his fanatical supporters, who often have a crush on him personally rather than on the club he played for. Many love him for his footballing skills alone, for his smooth and creative style of play - when he's on the form. Despite his German citizenship, some Turks see him as the biggest Turkish football export of all time and thus as a representative of Turkish values ​​and a victim of supposed European racism.

At Basaksehir, a club with a tiny following of just a few thousand fans, Özil doesn't face the same pressure as in Madrid or London. Neither by the fans nor by the media, whether he succeeds or not. "Özil still thinks he hasn't given up football," says Celikler. "But football seems to have left him."