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Me Tarzan

14th November 2019

"My feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline and always-give-your-all is the German part".

Mesut Ozil

It hasn’t been a happy Autumn for Arsenal fans. Heading into this weekend’s international break they are winless in five games across all competitions. Not only are they nowhere near as good as Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester or Chelsea, they’re not quite as good as Sheffield United. If there’s light at the end of the tunnel, it may be in the manager’s belated decision to start picking his best player.

When Mesut Ozil moved to North London from Real Madrid in August 2013 it was the latest chapter in a story of the successful intertwining of cultures. Born in Gelsenkirchen, Ozil is a third generation Turkish-German. His family hails from Zonguldak, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. While he was a key member of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning team, Ozil’s Turkish heritage is seen not only in his playing style but in his lifestyle. He is a practicing Muslim, and his pre-match preparation includes reciting from the Quran.

Germany is home to over 2 million Turks and this group is the country’s largest ethnic minority. I have a friend who was born and raised as a third generation Turkish-German. She's equally proud of both countries and has given both of them good reasons to be proud of her. She’s never allowed herself to be labelled as an outsider, but she confesses that as a schoolgirl she found it odd to be expected to answer for the actions of the Turkish government. Her classmates, and to some extent her teachers, saw her as Turkey’s ambassador to the school. That’s a heavy burden to carry when all you want to do is fit in. It grows heavier when people speak to you in what she described to me as “Tarzan German”. This refers to Germans speaking bad German to Turks, hoping that it will be easier to understand. In Tarzan German, articles are dropped from speech and the familiar "du" form of address is used. Syntax is muddled and verbs aren’t conjugated. And of course it’s spoken very slowly. British people can be equally patronising, of course, and the image of the British holidaymaker speaking English slowly and loudly to bemused Europeans has been a stereotype for decades.

The more we see role models navigating between cultures, the farther we can move away from these stereotypes. In the same month that Mesut Ozil arrived at Arsenal, Victor Wanyama became the first Kenyan to play in the English Premier League and that marked the 100th different overseas nation that had been represented since the league was formed in 1992. Now at Tottenham, Wanyama has been captain of his country since the age of 23. He’s a role model, and not only for football fans.

So is Ozil. During the 2014 World Cup finals he saw the poverty and lack of opportunity in Brazil and donated his winner’s salary and bonus to the BigShoe charity project. This allowed 23 sick Brazilian children to have life-changing surgery. The number was chosen to symbolise the contribution of all 23 members of Germany’s squad to the World Cup win.

Mesut Ozil runs around a field and kicks a ball and gets paid unfathomable sums of money for doing it. Not everyone values his contribution - his own club manager is lukewarm in his appreciation - but Ozil recognizes the needs of those less fortunate and he recognizes the country of his birth and the faith of his ancestors. Some footballers speak in Tarzan language, but some of them speak to the world and stand up for tolerance and cultural integration. You don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to value that.


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