The Tortured Artist

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J.D. Salinger once wrote that ‘an artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.’

This quote encapsulates, quite neatly, the approach of the often-maligned figure of Mesut Ozil. He appears to be the latest in a long line of footballers seemingly scapegoated and ostracised at their clubs. He was interviewed by Sport Bild this week, his comments sounding worryingly dejected and self-deprecating – he spoke of being ‘singled out’ as the vitriolic mood continues around the Emirates.

Perhaps Ozil is perfectly content with his lot, and this is not necessarily a case of Churchill’s black dog. It does, however, provide a useful example in highlighting a wider issue in the game – the increasing need to recognise mental health issues in young sports players at the earliest possible stage.

In much the same manner as Salinger’s most well-known character, Holden Caulfield, Ozil appears to carry with him a burden; a symbol of the tortured artist. In certain matches, he has the demeanour of a man who would rather be anywhere else than playing football. This week he said, ‘When the team’s on a bad run, somebody needs to be singled out, sadly most of the time it’s me’. His morale appears to be at an all new low.

Of course, the narrative of the troubled footballer is nothing new. High salaries, early retirement and a lack of education without the sufficient post-retirement support make for a dangerous concoction. The nation has watched, helpless, for over 30 years as Paul Gascoigne has gone through a series of personal problems before and after his retirement. Diego Maradona’s life, both on and off the pitch, has been littered with misdemeanours. Dean Windass, one of the toughest footballers in recent memory, admitted to attempting suicide twice in 2012 having battled with depression following his own retirement from playing. In 1996 following a fracas with a journalist, Vinnie Jones, a notorious member of the Crazy Gang, walked into the woods with a loaded gun with the intention of killing himself, only to change his mind when his Jack Russell found him. The list goes on and on.

These incidents involving footballers are not exclusive to sport, seemingly prevalent in other industries as well. In a recent interview, Bruce Springsteen referred to the nameless affliction his heroes appear to endure. The Boss told of something the true greats seem to be saddled with, an attachment Springsteen himself shares through candid comments about his own mental health. ‘The performers wrestling with something significant are the ones which hold our attention. Why couldn’t you take your eyes off Marlon Brando? Well, something was eating at him. I don’t think it was ever named. It’s the same with Dylan.’ Ozil is the most recent example, something seems to be eating at him too.

Ozil’s accusations of being victimised for all of Arsenal’s ills has come at a time of continued unrest at the club, a feeling which has been simmering away for some time. Dissatisfaction from the fans stems from a perceived lack of effort at a time of increasing uncertainty over Arsenal’s future. Ozil’s trademark style is a calm and collected one; he keeps his head when all around are losing theirs, but it’s hardly the characteristic which hardcore fans warm to. It’s perhaps worthy of mention that he is often underestimated for his general work rate, although, as pointed out by Whoscored.com, the statistics point to ‘defensive contribution’ as a key weakness in his game.

The German’s leisurely approach appears on the opposite side of the spectrum to his fellow teammate Alexis Sanchez, who normally buzzes around the pitch relentlessly; haranguing defenders and forcing errors. Even Sanchez though, whose default setting is typically all-action, has looked increasingly frustrated and isolated as Arsenal’s season continues to unravel. The dynamic, harrying style of play, though, is just not in Ozil’s character. As Peter Reid once said about Stuart Ripley, alluding to his high level of work rate and ground covered, ‘if he was a second-hand car, I wouldn’t buy him.’ This is not the case here – his languid style feels at odds with his surroundings, like Andy Dufresne strolling through the yard at Shawshank prison. That just seems to irk some people.

Perhaps the all-action style is essential, that the overzealous and obsessive character traits are what are required to be at the pinnacle of your sport. Gary Neville said recently that the best footballers in the world seem to share this quality; the pained look of a person who feels their supreme talent is almost an inconvenience to them, a curse. Guillem Balague, author of ‘Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography’, agrees with this theory. Having spent over a year with the former Manchester United player, Balague suggested that the Portuguese’s behaviour, such is the extent of his ambition to be the best, borders on being sociopathic.

Some athletes have harnessed a more pragmatic approach, akin to Ozil’s seemingly casual affair with football, while even suggesting they dislike their own sport. Andre Agassi, himself a former world champion, found a way to channel his efforts more rationally, recently revealing ‘I play tennis for a living though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, always have.’ Not quite the outlook you’d expect from a man with eight major titles and an Olympic gold medal, but perhaps a refreshing insight into the workings of a mind with the sole aim of winning.

Regardless of league positions, style of play and kilometres covered on the pitch, Ozil’s disposition is a worrying one for both Arsenal and football fans alike. It’s a situation which, to my mind, transcends the everyday concerns of sport. Again, I would stress that this might not be the case in this instance, but, either way, it’s a conversation worth having.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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