For a player so alert to his next move on and off the football field, it should come as no surprise that Mesut Ozil was rather adept at chess as a child.
The schoolboy Ozil was obsessed with football, but the game of rooks, bishops and knights also appealed to that quick-thinking brain.
‘We had a chess club in our school,’ recalls Christian Krabbe, Ozil’s form teacher from the age of 11 to 16 who has become a valued family friend. ‘He was interested in mathematics and, of course, chess has a lot to do with logical thinking and strategies. He was quite good.
‘Maybe now if he is away with the German team and has some free time he can take a chessboard.’
Checkmate: Mesut Ozil used to play chess while growing up in Gelsenkirchen
Ozil, the son of second-generation Turkish immigrants Mustafa and Gulizar, was only ever interested in grand-mastering the football pitch.
On Sunday, Old Trafford will provide a platform for the 25-year-old Arsenal midfielder’s celebrated skills. Stories of dedication and drive litter the £42.5million man’s formative years.
Ozil’s radar passing skills were first honed in the Affenkafig — aka ‘monkey cage’ — a mesh-fenced five-a-side space a short walk from his home in the Bismarck district of Gelsenkirchen. He would be there ‘every day whether it be sun, snow or rain’, according to his older brother Mutlu. Joachen Herrmann, deputy head at Ozil’s secondary school, describes the young boy’s fascination with football as ‘a little bit autistic’, adding: ‘I always had the feeling he even took the ball to bed.’
From his classroom window, Ozil could see the Veltins-Arena, Schalke’s home stadium. The dreaming teenager had every reason to let his mind drift. As well as his precocious talent, the school has close links with the Bundesliga side and some impressive alumni.
Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper, was a few years above Ozil, while Julian Draxler, tracked by a clutch of Premier League clubs, and his Schalke team-mates Benedikt Howedes and Joel Matip are also graduates of the school.
The school is forward thinking in football terms. Three mornings a week are set aside for training.
Ozil was known as a reserved student but in training and on match days his personality changed. ‘When I saw Mesut for the first time, I had to check his age,’ says Krabbe. ‘I thought he must be two years older than the others, he was that intelligent. On the pitch he was another person. He exploded.’
Ozil was raised by Mustafa and Gulizar in an apartment at No 30 Bornstrasse. The area is quiet and residential, characterised by well-kept buildings. He lived with his parents and three siblings — Mutlu and his sisters Nese and Duygu. One neighbour, Mrs Buriye, remembers: ‘Mesut was a sweet child. Whenever you saw him he would give you a friendly greeting.’
The Bismarck area is a somewhat scruffy suburb of around 16,000 inhabitants. Coal-mining used to attract immigrant workers — such as Ozil’s grandfather in the sixties — but that began to grind to a halt in 1966 when the main colliery to the north-west of the district shut.
Social mobility here is limited. Gelsenkirchen has one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany, having approached 30 per cent in the decades since the coal industry slowed to a halt.
The Ozil family home has now been upgraded to a town house hidden away in a more respectable area. There is a driveway and manicured lawns but it is a humble abode, given Mesut’s fortune.
Mutlu played for Firtinaspor, a local club for Turkish boys, but Mustafa, who ran a small restaurant, took his more skilful son to Westfalia 04 Gelsenkirchen. He introduced his seven-year-old with the bold promise that he would become one of the world’s best.
‘He was a weak little thing but could shoot 25 metres, run very fast and entered every contest for the ball,’ says club coach Ralf Maraun. ‘He was a real street footballer. I remember once we won a game 12 goals to zero. Mesut scored 10. The other coach took me aside and said, “Next time, please leave that one at home”.’
After three years, Ozil moved to Teutonia Schalke-Nord and, in 1999, to Falke Gelsenkirchen. His departure from Falke still rankles with club officials. Ozil left 33 days before his 12th birthday, denying them development money from his transfers under FIFA law.
Ozil then played at Rot-Weiss Essen from 2000 to 2005 and the club are entitled to a £640,000 slice of the Arsenal deal. Andreas Winkler, a Bayern Munich reserve during manager Jupp Heynckes’s first spell, was his coach.
Winkler offers insight about a toughness embodied in Ozil’s father. ‘Mustafa Ozil is not an easy guy to deal with,’ concedes Winkler. ‘He was very focused on Mesut and knew he had a big talent. He was at every training, every match. It was the centre of his life.’
Mustafa raised eyebrows when he became his son’s agent in July 2011. He relinquished the role last month after a decision by Ozil to appoint his brother Mutlu instead.
‘I had a good relationship with Mustafa because I shared his opinion,’ adds Winkler. ‘But Mesut was very thin and the head of the club didn’t see his potential for a long time. The players knew, though. We had very bad fields. There were holes and sometimes it was not grass but ash. This didn’t matter for Mesut, he never had a problem controlling the ball.’
Despite a burgeoning presence on the pitch, Ozil remained painfully quiet off it. ‘Mesut didn’t say a word,’ says Winkler. ‘He was very shy but with friendly eyes. The only time he spoke a sentence was to get his new Nike Vapor boots. He was a special player so I paid for them.’
The gesture was welcomed by a family far from rich, and was eventually reciprocated in kind. Winkler remembers a goodbye present from Ozil Snr. ‘Mustafa gave me a bag with special Turkish food,’ he says. ‘Some sardines, tea, sausage and little glasses to say thanks.’
By now, Ozil was beginning to express himself off the pitch, too. The 17-year-old who caught the eye of Schalke was dyeing his hair with coloured flicks. Norbert Elgert is the club’s Under 19 coach and in 2005 he was left dazzled by Ozil in a four-a-side match at school. ‘His clever decision-making was extraordinary and it became clear to me: this boy had to play for Schalke,’ says Elgert.
Birmingham winger Peter Lovenkrands arrived at Schalke from Rangers in 2006 and was similarly taken by the slender figure with a sublime touch. ‘He was a young boy just getting a few appearances off the bench,’ says the Dane. ‘But in training he was unreal — one of the best players, dominant.
‘His technique was fantastic. He would get the ball with two people round him but suddenly be gone. You couldn’t get hold of him; he would be too quick with his feet.’
Lovenkrands replaced Ozil as a substitute during a Champions League group game against Chelsea in November 2007. Schalke eventually lost to Barcelona in the quarter-finals but Ozil did not feature in the knockout stages, with new signing Ivan Rakitic preferred for his defensive attributes.
‘He wanted to stay but also wanted to be appreciated and play,’ recalls Lovenkrands. ‘Mesut was p***** off a little bit.
‘I remember speaking to Andreas Muller, who was general manager, saying, “You cannot let him go”. But he said, “We’re getting Rakitic instead and he’s fantastic”. It was a shame, look at Mesut now.’
Back then Europe’s biggest clubs were interested and contact was made with Manchester United and Arsenal. Elgert says Ozil told him that ‘some day he wished to play in Spain and in England. Arsenal was the club he mentioned.’
But Ozil was not yet ready to leave Germany and Werder Bremen benefited. So did the national team. He was given responsibility at his new club and thrived, earning a reputation for creativity that would see him crowned king of the assist.
In February 2009 Ozil first represented at senior level the country his father moved to as a two-year-old in 1967. Until he took that bow, Turkey made overtures.
Ozil does not sing the national anthem before Germany matches. He recites the Koran to himself in respect for his Muslim faith.
He travelled close to home with Arsenal for their Champions League victory at Borussia Dortmund and although he was unable to drop into the school that shaped him 20 miles away, he sent a text message to Krabbe wishing his old tutors all the best.
Given the rivalry between Schalke and Dortmund, Ozil found particular attention from the famous Yellow Wall on Wednesday night. But it will not have fazed him, as Krabbe explains: ‘I took him by train to a Dortmund match when he was 16. He was in the South Stand with me. We stood there and heard the Dortmund fans sing and shout. I said, “This is the impression you should keep in mind”.
‘I think he was really astonished at how the people behaved — their hearts were in football. They live for their club. People do not talk about anything else here.’
They still speak about Ozil in Gelsenkirken; the boy who is always searching for checkmate.