It goes without saying that it is difficult to feel sympathy for an athlete who earns millions of pounds every year. They make an extraordinary living doing something which many fans would do for free — or even at their own expense. However, there are elements of a footballer’s life which can be difficult, and the upheaval of changing country is one such thing.
Take the case of Angel di Maria at Manchester United.
The 27-year-old is reportedly keen to leave the club after just 12 months, having failed to settle in Britain. There appear to have been problems both on and off the pitch: not only did Di Maria struggle to replicate his La Liga form in the Premier League, but he also unsettled by a robbery at his family’s English home. Now it seems he’s preparing to jettison his United career at the earliest possible opportunity.
It’s difficult to be too judgemental: acclimatising to a new league is not easy. There are unfamiliar languages, styles, systems and climates. It takes a strong character to see the process through to completion — and that’s why Mesut Ozil deserves some credit.
Like Di Maria, Ozil arrived from Real Madrid, forced out by the arrival of a shiny new Galactico. Like Di Maria, his first year in England was beset with problems. The German international initially appeared daunted by the physicality of the English game, and frequently looked disillusioned with life after the Bernabeu. He was haunted too by invasive stories about his personal life in both the British and German media.
But Ozil did not crumble. With his standing in the game, he could easily have found a route back to the continent — indeed, there was even brief talk of bids from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. However, he stuck it out. He rode out the storm and found a way to make it work for him with Arsenal.
That shows guts. English pundits are often quick to accuse of faint-heartedness, but his decision to stay in England — and his subsequent success in doing so — demonstrates conviction and courage. If he was half as fragile as his critics would have you believe, he would have jumped ship long before now. Instead, he was determined to put things right and rebuild his reputation in north London.
There is no angst in Ozil now. Instead, his energies are channeled into clear goals. Speaking on the eve of the Emirates Cup, Ozil said:
“I know that I have a lot more potential to show but if you look at the last two years, we’ve been successful and have won the FA Cup twice. Every season you need to prove yourself again and I want to do that again this time. I want to help the team as much as I can. Ultimately we have a strong team that can win everything. Our aim is to be more successful this season than we were in the last.”
In 2015, Ozil has begun to show his true self.
Finally, we’re seeing the player Arsenal thought they were getting when they smashed their transfer record to recruit him from Real in the summer of 2013. He seems more physically and mentally robust, and the hangdog expression is even occasionally replaced by the faintest glimpse of a smile.
Ozil is now delivering, and the indications thus far are that he will prove to have been worth the wait.
Arsenal fans will be delighted to chose to stick it out in England, whereas United fans may be left ruing the fact that Di Maria was not prepared to follow suit.
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