Credit where credit is due. Francesco Molinari fully deserved to win the Open. Mesut Ozil is a sublimely talented footballer.
However, the events involving the two aforementioned have come under serious media scrutiny over a pulsating weekend of sporting action. ( A quick word on the exciting Sea Of Class, who’s Irish Oaks victory hinted that she could well follow in her sire, Sea The Stars’, footsteps.)
I’ll start with the Open Championship. It was an incredible final day, as never have I remembered so many different names being in contention. At the start, the American triumvirate of Xander Schauffele, Kevin Kisner and the defending champion, Jordan Spieth, led the field by two. One by one they surrendered shots, allowing the chasing pack to close. Rory Mcilroy, having started five shots back, briefly led will Englishmen Justin Rose and Eddie Pepperell, who would have harboured merely pipe dreams at the beginning of the day’s play, started to look dangerous from within the warmth of the clubhouse.
More Americans, indeed nine in the top sixteen finishers, begun to challenge, yet all seemed to forfeit them at the crucial time. Kevin Chappell and Tony Finau were always blessing the upper echelons of the leaderboard but lacked the cutting edge. Then, there was Tiger.
Most sporting fans my age should discard him as a glorious has-been. He has not won a major for ten years and had been absent from the PGA Tour for three years prior to his comeback this season. Putting his golfing achievements aside, Woods’ media profile has taken two massive knocks, firstly when falling from public grace after an infidelity scandal landed him on the front pages rather than the back and secondly when, last year, he was charged with drink-driving while he was still supposedly in recuperation from surgery.
Somehow, Woods retains an infallibly popular edge. Carnoustie wanted him to win. America wanted him to. In fact, probably everyone outside of Italy wished in part that it was he, not the brilliant Molinari, who took the lead with a birdie at the last. Myself included.
The fifteenth Woods major has become an entity of its own right. He had fourteen at the age of 32. No one could have predicted that his tally would be unchanged a decade on.
It is great for the game of golf that he is back, not least because it could give rise to the support of a whole new generation of players. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, aside from being best friends off the course as well as superb technicians on it, are likeable professionals who deserve as much credit and following as Woods. The likes of Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick are excellent players, flying the English flag as passionately as any footballer, cricketer or rugby player. But while Tiger has been out of the game, golf has struggled to attract the attention of wider public imagination. That may now change.
I must dedicate a section to the genius of Molinari over the Carnoustie weekend. On a course set up to punish the most fractional errors, particularly on the Sunday, the Italian was unmoved and focused as if in a trance. He didn’t drop a single shot in his final thirty-seven holes. Just over two rounds went by without Carnoustie landing a blow despite packing the fieriest of punches.
Eight birdies in that time was a decent return as well and there is no doubt he saved the Open from becoming one of those rare farcical majors which no one seemingly wants to win. When it needed a champion, Francesco came to the fore, two late birdies plundered after an admirably consistent thirteen successive pars to open his card. What’s more, he’s currently the best golfer on the planet finishing in the top two in five of his last six events, winning three of those. It’s phenomenal form and he can look forward to the final major of the year, the PGA Championship, full of confidence.
The more pressing political sports headline occurred over Sunday night when Mesut Ozil provided us with an powerful and deeply intriguing statement:
“I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
That is to paraphrase the Arsenal playmaker’s words but the central essence remains regardless. Put simply, he accused not just German fans but German football as a whole of racism and disrespect towards and his national service.
Critics of Ozil point towards the unfortunate photo taken during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the UK. He is seen smiling with his arms round President Erdogan’s shoulders. Given he represents a country that has condemned the President’s actions within his own borders, it was not the wisest move especially as Erdogan rolled out the photos during his campaign for re-election which was duly successful.
The bandwagon was given ample ammunition should Ozil fail to deliver during the World Cup though despite creating plenty of chances against South Korea in Germany’s must win encounter, he largely failed to fire as his country flopped to the bottom of Group F.
He is only 29 but time has been called on his international career based on the hate campaign which followed Germany’s exit. There were twenty-two other members of the squad but Ozil was highlighted as the sacrificial scapegoat and the death threats soon arrived. Completely uncalled for and completely unnecessary but such is the cut-throat nature of modern sport in which everything is magnified by TV’s microscope that someone was always likely to lash out.
What Ozil likely has up his sleeve, however, is that this probably isn’t a knee-jerk reaction based purely on the events of the previous month. This may well have been brewing for a long time.
I refer back to his core statement. It is not specific to certain moments in which Germany won or lost. It is sweeping, signifying the power of glory and the threat of dejection. Ozil suggests that every defeat comes with its own personal dangers. Every game is fraught not just with the outcome of win or lose but with the emotional reward of love or hate, relief or reprimand.
Football fans will argue that Ozil does himself no favours by appearing lackadaisical on the pitch. But as a footballer you can’t do everything and relentless pressing is not Ozil’s game nor is it really his job. At Arsenal he has the speedy energy of Aubameyang and Lacazette to work the opposition defence off the ball while he can rely on the tireless Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka in less advanced areas of the pitch. With Germany at the World Cup he had the likes of Timo Werner and Marco Reus in front of him with Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos behind, all of whom play in positions in which it pays to work harder.
We mustn’t forget just how superb Mesut Ozil can be on his day. He broke the record for the fastest player to fifty assists in the Premier League and provided the most assists in every season he played at Real Madrid. He is matched by a very select few when it comes to an eye for a pass and appreciation of his talent may only come in retrospect.
In Germany, opinion on Ozil is divided. I am firmly on his side. I believe that this is a common feeling international footballers may share when it comes to representing their country, especially when it is not the country of their birth or when they are of a minority faith within it. Ozil is both and he may have spoken some of the most important words of his career. They hint at an issue that spans a significantly greater distance than Mesut Ozil’s international career.
They hint at institutionalised racism in German and worldwide football. I don’t think any single member of the German Football Association is a racist nor even that they deliberately hold any objectionable views (the same goes for our own Football Association, though the Rooney Rule debate is one for another day). However, put them all together and they will favour the German born boy of German born parents. In England, we will favour the English born boy of English born parents;
Ozil’s words have given football the hint. Football must take it.