Words Justin Salhani
Edits Drew Mikhael
In “Home and Away,” a collection of letters exchanged during the 2014 World Cup by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard and Swedish writer Karl Eklund, the pair discuss their irrational love of football. Eklund, as is apparent in his writing, is a romantic and loves the “Bossa Nova” style of the Brazilians. Knausgaard prefers the cynicism of Italy and the Argentines and has a particular obsession with the Kafka-look-alike (then of Real Madrid) Angel Di Maria.
After the round of 16, when Switzerland fell to Argentina, Knausgaard reflects on Swiss playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri.
“…he scored three goals in the same match…and was technically excellent, he did some sensational things, and he has pace and a powerful shot. But there was something about him I didn’t like, his dummies were wasted on me, I didn’t like the aura he gave off. This is unfair, I know, it is a bit like saying about a writer that you don’t care whether his or her books are exceptionally good if something about their character puts you off, you can’t even say what it is, perhaps the way they walk.”
When picking favorite players or teams, emotion often trumps logic. Knausgaard shows as much when he describes Shaqiri’s style of play in glowing terms, only to express a baseless expression of dislike for the player. Facts and figures don’t do enough to draw our affection.
For me, Lionel Messi is the best player I’ve ever seen. His agility, close control, and finishing are unparalleled and that’s without discussing his sublime vision, passing, or ability from set pieces. Before Messi was the undisputed king of the Camp Nou, a similarly brilliant player but polar opposite personality ruled Barcelona. Ronaldinho’s tricks and control are an act of rebellion and therefore art in a game dominated by defensive tactics and cynical fouls.
I must confess, however, that while both players have captured my imagination and influenced my game in some capacity, neither can claim my total adoration (not that they’d give a damn). A player that has gained this nonsensical appreciation from me, however, is Arsenal & Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil.
Ozil is not exactly the antithesis to either Messi or Ronaldinho. Like Ronaldinho, he’s a skillful playmaker, though certainly less flamboyant. And like Messi, he’s a cold, calculating figure with a game that often favors efficiency over spectacle. Ozil is certainly not as explosive as either player, and his seemingly lethargic body language regularly draws ire of pundits.
For me, it is actually Ozil’s (often maligned) body language that draws me to him as a player. The fact pundits are in constant criticism of something as trivial as his how he ‘appears to run’ makes admiring Ozil all the more enticing. It is almost an act of rebellion in itself, and we already know how a member of Guerrilla FC appreciates an act of subversion.
I recall his goal against Chelsea in the fall of 2016. Alexis Sanchez chipped the ball to Ozil who volleyed it first time. The volley bounced off the ground and over Thibaut Courtois into the net. His demeanor was calm, elegant, unflinching even.
If most players had attempted a volley off the ground and over the keeper one might deem it a fluke. But Ozil’s demeanor made it look as though it was his intent. Considering his technical ability and speed of thought, who is to say he didn’t?
When Ronaldinho was in his verve, juggling over defenders and roasting defenders with his signature elastico, he was celebrated for his expressions of joy. He played with a smile on his face. Like a leading act at a music festival, he hyped the crowd and brought the party. But where Ronaldinho is the superstar musician, Ozil is the suffering artist.
Ozil’s talents don’t necessarily enthrall the crowd as though they’re at Carnival. Instead, like a magnificent painting does in a museum, they leave the crowd stunned and in an awe-induced silence.
When he plays, much like any great writer working on their magnum opus, he suffers. It is this suffering, I think, that draws me to Ozil. Like any artist, he is seeking perfection. His passes are strokes of his paintbrush and assists are perfect shaping of a sculpted bust.
Ozil’s suffering is not a rejection of joy. It is an expression of the human condition. He is burning to create. Art is a release and artists look to their trade because they are constantly angered or disenfranchised by the state of the world. The only solution is to create an entirely new world.
For Knausgaard or Eklund, that burning to create is channeled into a novel or a play. For Ozil, it is channeled into an assist. This is his only release. It is only then, that his suffering temporarily subsides and he can feel an ethereal release.
There are surely those who would disagree with me. Ronaldinho and Messi surely have more supporters around the globe. They definitely have more supporters among the professional pundits. They more than likely have more supporters in my social circles. But this is the beautiful thing about football. I don’t have to care what they think.