This article first appeared in Issue 21 of The Football Pink fanzine in late 2018
Mesut Özil is a magnet for criticism, often despite stellar performances in an Arsenal shirt. What, if anything, can he learn from English football history; particularly in relation to being seen as a foreign mercenary? PAUL McPARLAN looks at him and a German import from another era to make comparisons. Illustration by DAMIEN QUINN.
Martin Keown regards himself as an Arsenal legend, an informed commentator and a walking example of a footballer who exhibited all those “English” qualities of determination, grit and desire which ensured that despite his lack of success on the international stage, he had a haul of domestic honours that anyone would be proud to emulate. A serial winner. A North Bank icon. A man who tolerated nothing less than 100% commitment from anyone wearing the Arsenal shirt.
After the Gunners lost the second leg of their Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid in May, Keown dispensed with the need for a cool, informed analysis. In his opinion the reason for Arsenal’s demise was patently obvious. He was wearing the number 11 shirt and embodied all that was wrong with the modern, mercenary, foreign football player. His name was Mesut Özil. Keown could not contain his ire with his perception of Özil’ s performance and BT Sports provided him with the opportunity to expand upon his views. Visibly distressed and angered, he accused Özil of “not being fit to wear the shirt”. Keown hit his stride; Özil just didn’t care and had shown little desire or determination throughout the game, betraying the loyal fans whose season tickets contributed towards his vastly inflated salary. Twenty years after Alan Sugar’s condescending stereotyping of foreign footballing mercenaries as “Carlos Kickaballs”, it was depressing to see that the xenophobic English mindset had not changed one iota.
In these belligerent post-Brexit times it appears that foreign players have to consistently reach Ronaldo and Messi levels of performance every match otherwise they are accused of lacking passion and being grossly overpaid. In the hurly burly of Premier League games, the modern footballer is expected to run continuously for ninety minutes and overwhelm the opposition with power and pace. Özil is what some English correspondents refer to as a “luxury” item, which surprisingly is not meant as a compliment. Sometimes his technical ability and his range of sublime passing is unheralded by fans and pundits alike, but the minute he pulls out of a fifty-fifty tackle in the middle of the park, his lack of English grinta becomes a problem. Even in this summer’s World Cup, commentator Jonathan Pearce felt the need to inform his audience that “Özil has made two challenges in the first five minutes. That is most unlike him”. Yet, an analysis of the game revealed that he had created seven chances for his team from open play, for which Pearce failed to provide a scintilla of credit. A luxury player can be tolerated when the side is winning, his apparent lack of commitment becomes an issue when they are not. These deficiencies are magnified when you are a “foreign mercenary”.
Özil must be bewildered at times by the levels of vitriol that he is subjected to by all strata of Arsenal’s fandom. I cannot recall any English player of his obvious skill and talent being subjected to such rabid criticism. Jack Wilshire was loved by the Emirates cognoscenti despite frequently having been photographed smoking, brawling or staggering out of a nightclub at four in the morning in an inebriated state. Indeed, for some strange reason, these are qualities that certain fans admire. Perhaps if Özil were to be seen lurching out of Stringfellows with a lap dancer on each arm, he would be more respected by the Gooners. Ticket prices for the Emirates Stadium are amongst the most expensive in the Premier League and The Guardian has discovered that 54% of season ticket holders are drawn from the AB Professional and Managerial social classes. So, when Özil is subjected to abuse on social media, the perpetrators are often well heeled, highly qualified graduates from London and the Home Counties. Does football offer these people a chance to utter views which they would never use in their own workplace? Is Özil simply a victim of the new breed of middle class Arsenal fan who judges every new signing by the standards of the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04?
In an episode of the classic comedy “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads”, Bob Ferris asks Terry Collier for his views on Germans. Terry sums up the nation in one word – arrogant. Warming to his theme he uses his own example of a failed marriage to a German Fraulein to expound a classic case of xenophobia: “The failure of my marriage only goes to prove a point. Them and us don’t mix. England should take heed of the failure of my entry into Europe. God didn’t make this country an island by accident you know”. Much as we might mock this perception of Germany now, sadly, belligerent attitudes to certain foreign players have been a feature of English football over the decades. It is always a source of considerable embarrassment to hear the constant singing of “Two World Wars and One World Cup” whenever we face Germany. Yet the media consistently abrogates its responsibility for this. Even fifty years after the end of hostilities, the mainstream British press still thought it acceptable in 1996, before the European Championship semi -final against Germany to run the headline “Achtung. Surrender. For you Fritz the war is over”, featuring Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne dressed as squaddies. Unsurprisingly, Piers Morgan was the editor responsible
In contrast “Fancy a cup of tea, Fritz” were the words that the German Paratrooper Bernhard ‘Bert’ Trautmann heard when he was handed over to British forces in 1944. Most football fans are now familiar with the story of the goalkeeper and former German prisoner of war who went on to become a legend at Manchester City, but it is worth revisiting to see how his experience compares to that of Mesut Özil. Famously, Trautmann had been captured and brought to England as a POW, where he often played football against local teams. In 1948, he was offered repatriation to Germany but declined and instead signed for local team St Helen’s Town in the Liverpool County Combination where his acrobatic performances and his novelty value started to attract crowds of five thousand. He also attracted many female devotees culminating in a relationship with a girl called Marion from nearby Bryn. She became pregnant and, as was the norm in those times, fully expected Bert to marry her. Bert, who was now 25, had no wish to wed. After their daughter Freda – named after his mother – was born, and with Marion awaiting his marriage proposal, he left her and the baby. He never came to see her again or informed her of his decision. He only saw his daughter for the first time when she was 42 in 2001 when she chose to track him down.
For some reason, perhaps in the interests of post-war harmony, this story was never fully pursued by the British press, which given the prudent social mores of the times, seems somewhat incongruous. One can only speculate on the tabloid and media savaging that Mesut Özil would have been subjected to if he had made an English girl pregnant and left her completely in the lurch. Trautmann always stated that in England he learnt about “humanity, tolerance and forgiveness”. Yet, even judged by the morality of the Love Island generation, his actions could only be described as despicable.
Trautmann’s considerable talents led to him being signed by First Division Manchester City in 1949. Once again, there is a backdrop to this story. He was staying with Jack Friar – the St Helen’s Town manager – and his family. Friar knew that a transfer to a bigger team was inevitable and was keen for Bert to sign for Burnley, with whom he had already undertaken negotiations. He told Trautmann not to sign for anybody until he had spoken to him first. He came home from work one evening to find that his German friend had signed for Manchester City. It was a strange way of repaying somebody’s hospitality. Bert was also in a relationship with Friar’s daughter Margaret, who lived with them. And to complicate matters further, Bert had managed to get Margaret pregnant within two months of moving in. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to get one girl English girl pregnant is a misfortune, to get two pregnant is carelessness. This time there was no escaping marriage.
As soon as the news of Trautmann’s signing broke, the backlash from a significant proportion of City’s fanbase gathered momentum. The notion of having a highly decorated German soldier, one who was an ex-member of the Luftwaffe, an organisation that had wreaked havoc on English cities, did not go down well. In October 1949 over 25,000 fans turned up outside Maine Road to protest against the decision. Some ripped up their season tickets to show their disgust with the club. The local papers were swamped with letters from indignant supporters, venting their anti-Teutonic spleens: ”When I think of all those millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered, I can only marvel at Man City’s crass stupidity”, opined one outraged contributor. Several writers signed off their letters, ”Heil Hitler!”
The outrage was not confined to Manchester, the whole country was seemingly appalled by City’s apparent lack of sensitivity so soon after the cessation of the war. Many soldiers threatened to boycott City’s games if the new keeper remained. As anger rose across the nation, thousands more joined an increasingly hysterical campaign. The letters pages of national newspapers were deluged with venomous contributions, one can only speculate as to the content of those that didn’t get past the editor. Trautmann and his benefactor, Jack Friar, were subjected to a barrage of hate mail. Death threats were made. Apart from engaging Lord Haw Haw as a match day announcer, it seems that City could not have made a worse faux pas. However, for Manchester City, this was a decision based on pure economics. They had found a talented keeper on their doorstep to replace their legendary custodian Frank Swift and he wouldn’t cost a penny.
In the 1940s an individual sending a hate mail letter would have no way of knowing if he was acting in isolation or knowing if other fans shared their views. Unfortunately for Özil, he lives in an age where social media allows the whole spectrum of humanity to vent their spleens at will and in public. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Özil has at times been subjected to an intensity of vitriol that is beyond acceptable. Piers Morgan, who has strong support amongst Arsenal fans, has used social media to conduct a vicious personal crusade against Özil. After Arsenal lost three-nil away at Brighton & Hove Albion in February he took to Twitter to personally blame Özil for the defeat, tweeting “Özil gave the ball away and just stood there like a f***ing stuffed lemon. 300K a week to be a lazy git”. Once again, another commentator highlights the fact that Özil has committed the most cardinal of crimes: he has failed to run non-stop for ninety minutes and earns far too much money. Yet, if Morgan had bothered to check the Opta statistics, he would have seen that at the end of January 2018, Özil had created more chances from open play than any other player in the top five European leagues that season. As Aneurin Bevan once said “This is my truth, tell me yours”.
During the 2011/12 season, Özil was an integral part of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side where he shone in his manager’s lethal counter attacking system. The Ultra Sur hinchas fell in love with Özil’s sublime skill and technique. Such was his impact that he took the place of the legendary Brazilian Kaka in the side. In Spanish football, unlike in England, being referred to as a “luxury” player is a compliment not a brickbat. Before the start of the 2013/14 campaign, as Gareth Bale was unveiled as the new “galactico”, the chant of “no se vende Özil” (Don’t sell Özil) could be heard from numerous fans. Most Real Madrid supporters would welcome Özil back with open arms.
Trautmann made his Manchester City debut away at Bolton Wanderers on the 19th November 1949 where he was greeted with a constant stream of verbal abuse and chants of “Heil Hitler” and “Nazi” every time he touched the ball. City lost three – nil. Bert was due to make his home debut the following Saturday against Birmingham City and was understandably anxious as stringent anti-German sentiment appeared to be on the rise. Fortunately, the Chief Rabbi of Manchester used the local press to make an appeal for tolerance, insisting that Bert personally could not be held responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime and wished him every success at the club. At a time when the societal emphasis was one of reconciliation, the words had a remarkable impact. Despite some initial protests and heckling, the game passed off without any serious incident. By the end of his first season, Trautmann’s excellent performances in a very average Manchester City side had gained him acceptance throughout the country.
In 1956, Trautmann became the first ever foreign player to receive the prestigious Footballer of the Year award, after helping his club to win the FA Cup whilst playing for the last 15 minutes of the final with a broken neck. However, in the semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, with just five minutes remaining, Spurs forward George Robb was pulled to the ground by Trautmann in the penalty area. It seemed an obvious foul and a sending off, but the match official awarded neither. The newspaper photographs the next day showed the keeper clearly grabbing Robb’s leg to prevent him from scoring. Later that week, Movietone news played the incident to packed cinemas across the country, featuring the commentary “Now watch as the German goalkeeper fouls George Robb by holding his legs.” Suddenly, Trautmann found himself to be the subject of a vicious hate campaign yet again. When the teams met at White Hart Lane for a league fixture a few weeks later, he faced some of the worse verbal abuse he had encountered from the terraces in years.
On a personal level, 1956 was a tragic year for Trautmann. He was invited by the German F.A to be guest of honour at their game against England in Berlin. His wife, Margaret, wanted him to come on a family holiday with their son John who was five. Bert chose to attend the fixture instead. On the day of the match, John had gone to buy some sweets from a van across the road. He didn’t see a car approaching and was killed instantly. Margaret never forgave Bert for not being there.
Footballers; although they may view themselves as indispensable to a club, sometimes forget that they are often just a mere commodity. At the start of the 1963/64 season, Trautmann was deeply shocked to discover that whilst he was being paid £30 a week, other new signings were earning twice that amount. After making over 545 appearances for the club, he felt he deserved more. The club directors turned down his request and he left, opting to turn out for non-league Wellington Town who paid him £50 a match. It was an ignominious end to the career of a man who had rejected the chance to return to Germany at the end of the war and had been determined to succeed in his adopted country.
Recently, Mesut Özil has shown a more determined side to his character with several powerful responses on social media to the criticism he has received. He hit back providing a detailed critique of Keown’s jealously of his talent. He has subsequently reacted to the abuse he received from the German media after their World Cup exit, taking particular exception to being referred to as a member of the “Bling- Bling“ faction in the squad.
Jose Mourinho made Özil an integral part of his team, achieving consistently outstanding performances from him at Real Madrid. With Unai Emery now in charge at the Emirates, can he devise a system to utilise the skills and talent of Özil? Most sensible Arsenal fans are desperate for Özil to succeed. Özil has posted photos of himself wearing the iconic no. 10 shirt for next season and the response from the Arsenal Twitterati has been positive. There is no doubt that he could bring more as a player but what he does bring is unique and makes him a joy to watch at times.
At the age of twenty-nine, this may be the last opportunity for Özil to show that he is the man to re-establish the club as a powerhouse in English football. Winning trophies is still the most recommended method of becoming an icon with fans. Nobody questions your commitment when you are a winner. Bert Trautmann was able to overcome incredible levels of hostility and prejudice by his outstanding performances on the pitch. Surely Özil would do well to learn from his experience and create a similar legacy at the Emirates?
PAUL McPARLAN – @paulmcparlan