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Özil opens new chapter with hero’s welcome in Istanbul

Over one million people followed the flight path of a Dassault Falcon 8X from London Luton Airport to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport on Tuesday night. A flight that peaked at 300,000 congruent viewers on Flight Radar continued into the dark of night until 1.15am, after what must have felt like an eternity to many, Mesut Özil finally arrived in the city that bridges two continents. Despite never playing for a Turkish club or ever donning the red and white of the national team, this felt like more than just an apt return to the land of Özil’s ancestors.

Upon landing and despite the ever-looming presence of Covid-19, Özil was swarmed by a posse of journalists, security, and Fenerbahçe staff, not least the manager Erol Bulut and their Director of Football, former Newcastle favourite Emre Belözoğlu. The Fenerbahçe faithful have dreamt of a day when a boyhood Fener fan would don the colours of the Blue Canaries.

Rumours of Özil’s imminent arrival were fuelled by hints from the playmaker himself via Twitter, which has no doubt dominated much of the chat among the Asian half of Istanbul’s cafés. Özil’s arrival in Istanbul has been lauded as the window’s biggest transfer by his former manager Arsene Wenger when talking to beIN Sports.

It is unlikely any transfer in 2021 will be received with such fanfare. Photos of Özil’s arrival on Fener’s official Twitter account amassed over 327k likes. The sheer importance of this transfer and surrounding buzz will most likely go unappreciated in western Europe – Özil has dominated the Turkish media’s sports coverage in recent weeks and will continue to for the rest of his time at the Şükrü Saraçoğlu stadium. The Istanbul Stock Exchange has felt the reverberations of Turkey’s biggest transfer in years, with Fenerbahçe’s stock price reaching its second-highest price on record, trading at 45 TL, although this should be taken with a pinch of salt considering the health of the Lira.

During Özil’s time in London, he cemented himself as one of football’s good guys. Much of Özil’s charity work operated in silence with little media coverage around his foundation’s supply of meals to school children across north London. Other actions did generate headlines, from saving “Gunnersaurus”, Arsenal’s mascot, from extinction (or at least a P45) in November 2020, to his strong stance against the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province, despite this being detrimental to his personal brand as a player in football’s bourgeoning Chinese market. There have been some questions raised as to whether Özil will remain vocal regarding this issue, as he is a close associate with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose attitude regarding the Uyghur issue appears to have softened to the point of extraditing Uyghurs from Turkey to China in recent months.

Özil leaves Arsenal with an ambivalent legacy, with early moments of brilliance clouded by his seemingly permanent place on the Emirates bench in later years. What is apparent is that stock prices, charity work, and political commentary will be seen as secondary for the hundreds of thousands of Fener fans who will demand an awful lot from an aging Özil, who will be paid handsomely and has seldom seen time on the pitch over the past few seasons. Özil’s transfer is expected to be confirmed by Friday when his period of self-isolation is finished.

What is for certain is that if Özil can replicate a fraction of what he was capable of between his later years at Real Madrid and early Arsenal years, it will go a long way to deciding which neighbourhood of Istanbul this year’s tightly contested Süper Lig will head to in May.

Image: Fars News Agency via Wikimedia Commons