COVID-19 affected every aspect of football in 2020, from how the game is watched, to how it’s played, to its finances.
Fenerbahce’s signing of Mesut Ozil from Arsenal has generated huge excitement among fans of the Turkish football club that has had little to cheer about in recent years.
The Istanbul-based giants – one of Turkish football’s ‘big three’ clubs – have not won the Turkish Super League since 2014, an eternity for a club of its stature.
The signing of 32-year-old Ozil, an attacking midfielder of Turkish origin and a World Cup winner with Germany, became the biggest signing in Turkish football for many years.
So much was the excitement that, according to Flightradar24, at one point more than 300,000 people were tracking his flight from London to Istanbul on January 18.
Yesterday, over 1 million @Fenerbahce fans followed @MesutOzil1088’s flight from London to Istanbul. At peak, over 300,000 people were following the flight at the same time. https://t.co/O2XjKDO5MT pic.twitter.com/WlQvFeZkx4
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) January 18, 2021
But amid the fanfare, Ozil arrives in Istanbul with footballing and political baggage and raises the stakes this season for Fenerbahce and its beleaguered club president Ali Koc.
From a financial point of view, the transfer is – ostensibly, at least – astonishing.
Turkish football is mired in debt, partly from years of chronic overspending on players and little financial accountability.
Although Ozil joined as a free agent, Fenerbahce – whose estimated debt stands at more than $500m – had to launch a fundraising campaign to finance his wages, asking fans for donations.
His three-and-a-half-years contract will land Ozil at least nine million euros ($10.9m) as well as a signing bonus of 550,000 euros ($667,340).
While Fenerbahce are banking on selling Ozil merchandise and hoping he leads the club to the league title that would land a hefty dividend with Champions League qualification, his arrival could further limit the club’s ability to meet its obligations under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules which dictate that clubs have to break even.
It will add more foreign currency debt to a club at a time when the Turkish lira is notably weak.
📹 Şimdi Fenerbahçe YouTube'da!
— Fenerbahçe SK (@Fenerbahce) January 26, 2021
Ozil took a huge pay cut to terminate the remaining six months of his contract at Arsenal, which was thought to have been worth up to 350,000 pounds ($480,100) a week.
He could have also earned significantly more money by signing with a club in the United States or Qatar.
But after earning reportedly close to 100 million pounds ($137.4m) during his time at Arsenal, Ozil perhaps did not need the money so much as he needs love and respect after a difficult few years.
Fenerbahce and Turkey seem to hold a strong emotional pull for him.
Born and raised in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, Ozil says he supported Fenerbahce since childhood and that joining this club was a “dream” move.
“I’m very excited. God gave me the chance to wear this jersey as a Fenerbahce fan. God willing, I will carry it with honour and do everything I can for the team,” he said on Wednesday at his unveiling.
I grew up as a @Fenerbahce fan as a kid in Germany – every German-Turkish person supports a Turkish team when they grow up in Germany. And mine was Fenerbahce. Fenerbahce is like Real Madrid in Spain. The biggest club in the country 🇹🇷 https://t.co/Y3hEba79IO
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) January 11, 2021
In Turkey, Ozil is a hero for some.
Part of the excitement is down to his star quality, but it is also seen by some as a kind of ‘homecoming’ for a player who has always been proud of his Turkish heritage.
He will wear the number 67 – the first two digits of the post code and license plate number of his family’s native Zonguldak province in the Black Sea region of Turkey.
It seems likely that Ozil is craving adulation after allegedly facing racism during his international career and becoming an increasingly divisive and forlorn figure at Arsenal over the past few seasons.
Some even joked that the number of people tracking his flight to Istanbul included many Arsenal fans who wanted to be sure he had really gone.
Ozil was Arsenal’s record signing when former manager Arsene Wenger brought him from Real Madrid in 2013.
During his first few seasons in the Premier League, he dazzled with his flair and creativity, and ended up with 44 goals and 77 assists in 254 appearances.
But he also became a lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
While he made 92 international appearances and was a key part of Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning side, he ended his international career in 2018 after what he called racist criticism and scapegoating following Germany’s first-round exit at the 2018 tournament.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he said.
Ozil was also heavily criticised in Germany when he posed for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
Erdogan was the best man at Ozil’s wedding the following year.
Ozil’s performances and returns on the pitch for Arsenal declined over time and he was increasing out of favour – especially after Wenger departed in 2018.
He became deeply unpopular among many Arsenal fans. Detractors questioned his commitment to the club while receiving one of the highest salaries in the league.
More sympathetic fans pointed to his languid playing style that belied the significant distance that he used to cover on the pitch and bemoaned the lack of playing time he was given amid his stated desire to break back into the Arsenal team.
He also found himself at odds with the club in December 2019 after his comments regarding China’s persecution of its Turkic and Muslim Uighur minority, which the club distanced itself from.
Ozil took more flak after rejecting a pay cut during the COVID lockdown last year.
His last competitive appearance for Arsenal was in March 2020 but he insists he is in good shape and Koc said he should be ready to make his debut in the Istanbul derby against Galatasaray on February 6, if not sooner.
His transfer is still a gamble for Fenerbahce.
Perhaps Ozil will settle down quickly and excel in a league that has a lower standard than the Premier League.
But he has not played for almost a year – it’s not clear how good he is now – and he may struggle to adapt to a more rudimentary style, in a physical and volatile league, alongside some teammates that may be nowhere near his level.
It is a lot to expect one player to transform a team which Fenerbahce, despite being second in the table, has long struggled for consistent form.
Koc – an urbane scion of one of Turkey’s richest families – was elected president in 2018 after pledging to reverse the club’s fortunes, repair its dire finances, and develop young players while ending excessive transfers that were often burdens and flops.
But with a new election due at some point later this year, the club has yet to win a trophy under his stewardship.
Turkish football is notoriously impatient, the pressure is immense, and disgruntled fans and members need appeasing. Signing Ozil could be a useful and popular gambit ahead of the looming election, but it is also risky.
Koc has delivered Ozil, and now Ozil will be expected to deliver this season’s title.