Rory Smith On Soccer
As he trades exile at Arsenal for a new start at Fenerbahce, Özil should be measured by what he brought to London, not what he didn’t.
Mesut Özil watched Jack Wilshere’s pass as it drifted over his shoulder, and then plucked it down from the sky, a coin landing on a cushion. Most players might have accelerated then, with an empty penalty area unfolding before him, an opponent giving chase at his back.
Özil, though, slowed down, almost to walking pace. He did not look at the ball; he did not need to. He knew where it was. Instead, he glanced to his right, assessing Olivier Giroud’s intentions. He had called the Frenchman his teammate for only 12 days — a handful of training sessions, no more — but he read him perfectly.
If anything, it looked as if he under-clubbed the pass he then sent Giroud’s way, a soft-shoe roll across the penalty area that seemed to sell the striker slightly short. The appearance was deceptive: The ball invited Giroud to dart away from his marker, and gave him enough space and time to pick his spot. He swept a shot past the goalkeeper.
As he wheeled away in celebration, he sought out the man who had made it possible. Özil had been unwell in the buildup to the game. Already, though, he had made quite the impression. His very presence had lifted his teammates. Online, his new fans swooned. “If that’s Özil under the weather, with little or no relationship with any of his colleagues, then I can’t wait to see him when he’s firing on all cylinders,” Arseblog wrote. He had, at that point, played 11 minutes for Arsenal.
In truth, he did not even need that long. On the night he signed — transfer deadline day in September 2013 — a throng of fans congregated outside the Emirates Stadium, mobbing the Sky Sports News reporter stationed outside as he delivered updates on how the complex negotiations were proceeding. When the deal was completed, they celebrated with the sort of gusto that would ordinarily greet a late winning goal.
Özil had Arsenal at hello. Even at the time, his arrival felt a little like another milestone in soccer’s blooming transfer culture, an age in which acquisition is a success in and of itself, an expression of power and clout and virility that renders what happens afterward — whether the player is, in fact, any good — if not irrelevant then very much secondary.
Such a reading of Özil’s time in London — that the most significant aspect of his Arsenal career was the fact of it — is not entirely invalid, but it is a touch misleading.
The sense of jubilation on the night he signed was understandable. The previous seven years had been difficult for Arsenal: not difficult in any real sense, not difficult in a way that fans of Rochdale or Torquay or York City would recognize, but difficult by thoroughly modern superclub standards.
Hamstrung by the need to repay the loans required to build the Emirates, Arsène Wenger had been forced to work on a relative shoestring. The sight of players’ leaving Arsenal for more money and broader horizons at Manchester City had become a common one. A year earlier, the club had allowed its talisman, Robin van Persie, to sign with Manchester United, a gesture taken as a symbolic surrender. An Arsenal team that had always seen itself as a title contender seemed to have downgraded its ambitions to merely qualifying for the Champions League.
Özil’s arrival was greeted as a sign that the dark days were over. Here was a bona fide superstar, lured from Real Madrid no less, for a record fee. He was a symbol of a new dawn: The debt paid down and the calvary completed, the club could now take its place as one of the game’s true superpowers, equipped with a team fit for its home.
It did not, of course, quite work out like that. Özil’s tenure ended this week, when he flew to Istanbul to join his boyhood team, Fenerbahce, on a free transfer, several months after Arsenal effectively shrink-wrapped him and left him on the loading dock.
In the course of seven and a half years at Arsenal, Özil won three F.A. Cups and played a central role in one genuine title challenge, in 2016, but he could not be said to have signaled a change in the club’s fortunes. (He would also, of course, win the World Cup with Germany during this period.)
The Arsenal team he joined was a fixture in the Champions League; the one he left was scrabbling to claim a place in the Europa League. Özil, in some quarters, was held responsible for some part of that decline; a kinder interpretation would be that he was simply not a bulwark against it.
Either way, his time in London did not have the outcome that either he or his club would have preferred. Instead, as The Guardian neatly put it this week, he left a sort of “half-legacy” at the Emirates: one of games that he dominated, rather than seasons; one of eternal promise that something more was around the corner; and, in later years, one of intense division among those who hold Arsenal close, some of whom saw him as the problem, and some who still believed he might be the solution.
To most, then, even if he cannot be deemed a failure, then he certainly cannot be cast as a success. There was no Premier League title, no Champions League crown, not even a Premier League player of the season award. He never lived up to that initial hype. In his twilight, Özil came to be dismissed as a player of great moments, and nothing more.
And yet that seems a strange reason to condemn him as a letdown. It is a common misconception that supporting a team is about trophies and championships and glory. It is not. If it were, millions of us would simply not bother. It is, instead, about memories of moments.
Winning, of course, is cherished because it tends to create more of those moments than losing. Winning is prized because the instant of victory is the greatest moment of all. But that does not strip meaning or value from all of the moments along the way; the journey is as much the point as the destination.
And Özil, though he never took Arsenal where the club hoped he might, provided plenty of those moments. That pass, 11 minutes into his first game, was just one of many, which went beyond the goals against Newcastle and Ludogorets and Napoli, plus all the others that might grace a YouTube compilation soundtracked by off-the-rack E.D.M., or all of the 19 assists he recorded in his finest season.
There were the countless deft first touches, the hundreds of clever passes, the ones only players of the rarest gifts can see. There were the otherwise tedious games — true, often against weaker opposition — that he illuminated, especially in his first few seasons. There was, most important of all and yet least tangible, the sense that with him in the team and on the field, something might happen at any moment.
None of that is worthless. Özil might not have heralded a new dawn for Arsenal, after all; he might not even have been able to stay the decline. He might feel, with the benefit of hindsight, when the final verdict is issued, like something of an anticlimax. But the journey is as much the point as the destination, and Özil provided plenty of moments along the way.
The Crest of a Wave
In many ways, Inter Milan’s decision to undertake a comprehensive rebrand should be welcomed by anyone who has cause to refer to the club in English. It solves a rather knotty problem, you see, one that is rooted in the fact that Inter Milan does not, strictly speaking, exist.
The club’s name is Internazionale, which can be abbreviated, in Italian or in English, to Inter. But there is no mention of Milan. Inter Milan is a widespread, longstanding (and ultimately pretty harmless) Anglicism, but it is not — technically — a thing, any more than Arsenal London is a thing.
So the club’s reported plan to change its name to Inter Milano should, to some extent, make everything easier for us — and what, ultimately, is more important than the convenience of the English-speaking world? — just as it would be in our interests for Sporting Clube de Portugal to accept the inevitable and start calling itself Sporting Lisbon.
Inter’s plans extend beyond its name, though. The club intends to alter its crest, too, in line with the redesign of its great rival, Juventus, a couple of years ago. That, too, should be unremarkable: Inter has had 13 versions of its crest in its 113-year history, though the basic style has been the same since 1963 (with the exception of a weird decade from 1978 to 1988 in which its ornate design was replaced by a cartoon snake).
But this is all uncomfortable, for two reasons. One is quite what the point of it all is: Juventus defended its own change as a sign of its progression from simple, all-conquering soccer team into a brand capable of “delivering lifestyle experiences.” But what does that mean? How can Juventus deliver a lifestyle experience? And how does it do that through its crest?
The other, more important, reason is that a crest is more than a corporate logo. It is a symbol of all the history and emotion and communal experience that compose a soccer team. The best of them — in which Inter’s might be included — are immediately identifiable: They have a glamour and a power that can be accrued only through tradition.
To change a crest through a desire to become more recognizable not only risks the precise opposite — if anything, a new crest can only be poorer in its connotations — but also threatens to alienate those fans who feel a kinship with the current one. Worse still, it suggests a lack of faith in your own history, your own lore, your own identity. It seems a heavy price to pay for the marginal, and largely theoretical benefits, of being a lifestyle brand.
A Morality Tale
The key thing to remember, strictly speaking, is that there is no villain in the story of Moisés Caicedo. For the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to piece together the reason so many European clubs have been given the same warning: That for all Caicedo’s immense promise, a deal for him is just too complicated to pull off.
The reason for that is, on one level, unremarkable. The transfer market is saturated with agents who try to interject themselves into any prospective deal. They approach players with promises that they can get them to a certain club or to a certain league. They receive mandates from clubs to sell a player in a specific territory.
In Caicedo’s case, at least three separate agencies are thought to have some sort of legal claim on his transfer; the likelihood is that several more are touting their own connections across Europe in an attempt to conjure a transfer out of nowhere. And, to reiterate, this is all (seemingly) perfectly above board, as things currently stand.
Whether it should be that way is a different matter. It feels, from the outside, as if much of this is completely unnecessary, as if soccer’s authorities are vaguely complicit in allowing the transfer market to operate as a free-for-all. It is hard to see how any of this is in the players’ best interests. The benefits to the clubs seem indistinct, at best, too.
It should not be hard to regulate things a little more effectively. Agents, certainly, should not be allowed to operate for more than one party in any deal. The practice of allowing clubs to nominate agents to act on their behalf makes sense — it allows them to retain some negotiating power — but the issuing of multiple mandates seems ripe for complication. And it might help if representation agreements had to be signed long before deals were completed.
Caicedo, it is to be hoped, will find himself in the right place regardless of the squabble over his future. Brighton, the running favorite to land him, is a well-run, forward-thinking club, much like his current employer, Independiente del Valle. But it is a shame that his emergence — as the standard-bearer for a talented young generation of players in Ecuador — should be allowed to become a faintly tawdry opportunity for lots of people to try to get rich quick.
Last week’s piece on the hierarchy of fandom — and the underestimated importance of the armchair viewer — prompted Kevin Hegarty to point out that, at least in Britain, “there is a split among those who follow their team from home on TV, between following your team from home within England, and following your team from home from abroad. The latter is the lowest rung, and I find weirdly takes the blame for what TV has done to the game.”
This is absolutely right, and is entirely nonsensical. I had this conversation with people on Twitter, too. The idea that not everyone can just go to a game at the drop of a hat is something that is not factored in enough. Nor is the fact that it is, increasingly, those international viewers who enable teams to have the funds to sign and pay the superstar players all fans crave.
Keith Woolhouse, meanwhile, wants to know what Sam Allardyce’s secret is. “What elixir does he have that enables him to prevent otherwise doomed clubs from sinking into oblivion? Whatever it is that Sam has that turns clobbers into nimble-footed magicians, he should have applied his skills to politics: England needs resurrection, and all hands to the pump.”
Sadly, I suspect reviving the British government at this point might be beyond even Allardyce. He’s a fascinating character, though: an undoubted pioneer and an impressive coach scuppered to an extent, I think, by his own thirst for validation.
I do worry that his latest trick is his hardest, though. In most of his previous jobs, he has taken over teams drastically underperforming, and restored a little order and belief and purpose to them. West Bromwich Albion is not underperforming: Its squad is doing exactly as it should in the Premier League. His test, now, is to find out if he can get players to play above themselves. My instinct is that he will fall short, albeit narrowly.