He manages sublime moments on the ball of a scarcely tangible substance.
His passes out of nothing are black holes in the game.
TEXT Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht ILLUSTRATION Hendrink Jonas
Translated by jenny_jenkins
After July 4, 1954 - I was six years and 19 days old at the time - I was never really aware of the National team until the last 16 of the World Cup in South Africa, which I was following because I was on vacation in the Caribbean. There are moments from those games of this new national team with its different faces that I will remember until the end of my life. In the middle of these unforgettable moments are the movements of Mesut Özil - and also his face, that did not remind me of Nemo's face - his 10 friends from Real Madrid are wrong on that one - but instead, of the face of a Turkish prince out of a fantasy from the 19th Century.
Admittedly it is difficult to clearly remember specific moments or bring them to mind, because as memories they are instead feelings of intense happiness rather than precise pictures. They do not meld, as a tiki-taka or chess played on a pitch, together. I find them "sublime," in the classical philosophical meaning of this word, because you can't really hold onto them. Only a single individual remains: Mesut Özil. I can scarcely remember any of his goals, or any of the goals scored by this team, which is unusual; only the goals scored against them, Puyol's massive header in the semi-final and Diego Forlan's near free-kick in the game for third place. Mesut Özil also sometimes scores goals, but I forget them; it's also not the baroque dribbling of a Mané Garrincha or the midfield zigzagging of Franz Beckenbauer, that make him so special; not even the proverbial "passes from the deep." Mesut Özil's biggest moments are so minimalistic that one can scarcely grasp them; to me they seem like the intensification of the most beautiful concentrations of one-touch soccer. Özil's moments are short and have a scarcely tangible substance - like those elements in particle acceleration that only exist in microseconds. He allows a quick pass to run past him at the last moment, instead of stopping the ball; he stops the ball and stands suddenly above it, so that his opponent loses all his balance and control; then he plays passes, that seem to come out of nothing as from the depths of space. One first discovers Mesut Özil when a pass nearly results in a goal. His minimalism is a variant on every principle that has always (realized or not) alluded, since the time of the Renaissance, to something for which the word "elegance" was required. We speak in precisely the same way about "elegant solutions" in mathematics: there are procedures and arguments that are faster, more minimalistic, and that gain their goals exactly as the conventional methods dictate.
That's why taxi-drivers in Madrid immediately speak of "Ozil" (without the Ö and with a lisping 's') when you step into the car at the airport - and continue praising him - long, long past the periphery of the city; that's why the bystanders in the Santiago Bernabeu stand to ovation when this oriental prince is ordered back to the bench in the extra-time of an important game in which the team of their hearts would lose. Of course they are not preoccupied with philosophical concepts of a particular aesthetic, but they want to feel the beauty of this football on top of and beneath their skin. That Mesut Özil works hard, that in the deciding super clasico of this year only Xabi Alonso recovered more passes than he did from Barcelona's players; all this raises his value to the team and in the market. But it disappears too in his bigger moments, restrainin the game like black holes in the universe: they soak up energy and create the spectacle.
Should one be "critical" and ask what the strategic cost of all this minimalist elegance could be? Actually, I don't care any more than the spectators at the Bernabeu do. But if I must: black holes only absorb energy that has already been produced; a player can only allow balls that are played toward him to pass him by; and passes from nothing are banal, since they rely on players who run into space to receive them. Turning around a game is not Mesut Özil's thing. He doesn't look like a fighter, although he doesn't lack the will. Rather, he has within himself the ability to turn big teams into brilliant teams, dramatic games into lucky wins. The word "drudgery" is not one that occurs to me when I think of this Oriental Prince, who came into the world at Schalke. But what would Sir Simon Rattle be without the Berlin Philharmonic and without that healthy constitution beneath his coat-tails?
Nothing will give me greater pleasure this summer than Mesut Özil's minimalistic elegance.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the Albert Guérard Professor for Literature at Stanford University and visiting professor at the Collège de France and Zeppelin University. His Book "In Praise of Sport" was translated into 12 languages.
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