The whole of Germany is pinning its hopes for a fourth World Cup win in South Africa next year on the talents of Mesut Özil, a 20-year-old midfielder of Turkish descent who has been described as the most talented playmaker in a generation. Such aristocrats of the game as Franz Beckenbauer and Günter Netzer have heaped praise on the Werder Bremen player who has established himself as a pillar of the national team after just five matches. He pairs consummate ball control with an ability to read the game and open up defences with quick, clever passes.
Özil helped set up striker Miroslav Klose's goal in the 1-0 victory over Russia in Moscow on Saturday that sealed Germany's qualification for South Africa, and has brought a creativity in attack that had been lacking from German sides for more than a decade. "Mesut Özil is the playmaker Germany has been waiting so long for," Bild am Sonntag, Germany's biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, claimed. Joachim Löw, the German national team coach, said: "He has the ability to spring surprises and shape the match with deadly through passes."
If he lives up to expectations in the World Cup, Özil will become a national hero, which would give a much-needed boost to the 2.8 million residents with Turkish roots who are struggling to be accepted into German society. He opted in 2007 to give up his Turkish citizenship so that he could be selected for Germany. "This is not a decision against my Turkish roots," he said at the time. "But my family has now lived in Germany for three generations, I grew up here and always felt at home here. This is where I got my opportunities in junior teams."
Despite choosing Germany over Turkey, he does not sing the German anthem ahead of matches. Turkish media said he had betrayed his country, and Germany's far-right National Democratic Party dismissed him as a "passport German" who had no more right to play for the team than Klose, who was born in Poland. But Beckenbauer showered Özil with praise after his impressive display against South Africa last month. "He's a player who has an instinct for the game. And he's dangerous in front of goal. The boy can play football," he said - praise indeed from the man who won the World Cup as captain in 1974 and as coach in 1990.
And Netzer, the 1970s midfielder renowned for his passing skills and now one of Germany's best-known TV commentators, said: "He's the biggest talent we have." Özil, a man of few words, exudes a quiet confidence, much like his role model, Zinedine Zidane, the French legend of Algerian extraction. Özil said in an interview last week that he admired Zidane's "casualness" on the pitch. And while he may not have reached the Frenchman's level yet, they share the same playful style that recalls a Sunday afternoon knockabout and betrays a love of the game. It is alien to Germany's tried-and-tested reliance on hard work and discipline, but the combination of the two styles has invigorated the team.
Özil grew up in the rough, industrial town of Gelsenkirchen, home to Bundesliga club Schalke 04, in the heart of the Ruhr coal and steel region of the north-west. Many Turkish immigrants settled there after being invited as "guest workers" in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War. He would play with friends in what they called the "monkey cage", a rough tarmac pitch with high fences and no goal nets where he would run rings around his mates. He joined the Schalke youth team and his then coach, Norbert Elgert, recalled that he was a fast learner. "Mesut was never difficult or egoistic," he said.
Football officials say his success is proof that German clubs are successfully integrating immigrant children. But the picture outside the world of football is very different. Germany's four million Muslims, mostly Turks but also many Arabs, live in virtual ghettos in the big cities and often complain of discrimination. Their unemployment rate is twice the national average. International studies have found that the education system is failing to cater adequately for the needs of immigrants, who are frequently still labelled as "foreigners" even if their parents were born in Germany.
An opinion poll last week showed 51 per cent of Germans agreed with controversial comments from Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the Bundesbank central bank, that Turkish immigrants were "neither willing nor capable of integrating themselves" into society. His comments, widely condemned, appear to have struck a chord with many Germans. It remains to be seen whether Özil's magic on the pitch will bring the communities closer together. He certainly has the potential to.
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