So Close, Yet So Far : Mesut Özil & Hamit Altıntop

mesut ozil hamit altintop

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Mesut Özil & Hamit Altıntop. As the kit fanatics would wrap their mind around this duo’s class earlier than some, this is the 11/12 season of Mourinho’s Madrid.

While Özil was one of the shiniest displays of a receding breed, Altıntop was the boulder block that Mourinho dropped onto the opposition, once Madrid got into the driver’s seat. Soon came Real’s first La Liga in four years, stealing one from Guardiola’s Barça. But these two’s connection ran deeper than just the Madrid era.

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Both are children of Turkish families in migration. Born six years apart, in West Germany, in a small town called Gelsenkirchen, where traces of immigration are evident. It is the same town that Schalke 04 originate from.

Both paid their dues to their hometown by wearing Schalke 04’s colors. Özil was an academy product and Altıntop was bought from lower-league neighbours Wattenscheid 09. Altıntop was six years Özil’s senior and he was one of the founding pillars of Mirko Slomka’s title chaser Schalke side, where Özil was an exciting prospect. They were the runners up in Bundesliga and fell only two points short behind title winners Stuttgart. They were that close to ending the 48 year wait for the Meisterschale.

Their shared story branched out entirely differently. A question emerged due to the nature of their ‘origin’ that would shine a light for the interested eye.

The Decision: Loyalty or Loyalty

Imagine that your family owns a business. Old, dusty stories of the past are the only presence in your life.

Now, imagine another workplace. It’s not owned by your family, but they’re responsible for every bit of progress you made in your trade. They trained you well, treated you well and most importantly they were fair. Now, after you got your license to work as a high quality worker, which one would you “bring your talents” to ?

These two gentlemen had different answers to this question. Altıntop opted to carry his ‘homeland’s colors’ and committed his international career to Turkey, while Özil – a much brighter prospect – decided to take his chances in “Die Mannschaft’s” star studded group.

Altıntop’s Incentive

After coming 3rd in their historic World Cup run in 2002, Turkey missed out on EURO 04′ & World Cup 06′. Their new ‘golden generation’ was developing under the wings of Fatih Terim and “The Godfather of Turkish Football’s” pull was too strong to resist. Altintop’s choice to play under the flag of his motherland – even though an offer from DFB was on the table – provided hope that the Turkish national team was a tempting option, especially for the ones that will face the same decision in the years to come.

Altıntop have made the jump of his career in the summer of 07′ when he made his way to Bavaria, via a free transfer to play for FC Bayern München. He managed to get his hands on the Bundesliga trophy, which he missed out on at Schalke 04 the previous season.

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He carried that momentum to the Euros as well. A series of fairyish, jaw dropping comebacks fired Turkey & Altıntop to the semi-finals of the competition. There was his chance to prove something.

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A Familiar Foe

Germany stood in the way between Turkey and their shot at the trophy. Panzers were oozing with class and Löw’s squad involved five of Altıntop’s teammates from Bayern. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were all crucial to Germany’s hopes of a successful run in the tournament. The only player that didn’t feature in Löw’s favoured lineup was Marcell Jensen, who was providing backup for the great Oliver Kahn and was the backup of Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann.

Altıntop’s heart had shattered to pieces by the end. Turkey fell 3-2 to Germany, where all 3 goals were scored by Altıntop’s teammates from Bayern – Schweinsteiger, Klose & Lahm. As one can imagine, Altıntop would choose to provide political answers, rather than emotionally driven ones, to questions that did the consequences of his prior decision involved any regret or not. Seeing that Leverkusen’s Simon Rolfes and Stuttgart’s Thomas Hitzlsperger were the two providing cover for the inevitable duo of Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger, fewer political thoughts might have crossed his mind for the split second.

The remainder of Altıntop’s international career was extremely short of headlines as Turkey missed out on the following four major tournaments – two Euros and two World Cups -.

Other Side of the Fence: Özil’s Decision

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Özil was only 17 years old when he was promoted to Schalke’s senior team. His exact words would be, when asked about the difficulties that such a challenge can bring to a teenager, were:

“It’s not easy to carry the weight of appearing week in and week out in the Bundesliga when you are 17. Both Hamit and Halil – Altıntop twins – acted as big brothers for me. They were my biggest chance.”

There was a short period of time between his start to appear regularly for Schalke and being left out of the squad due to a conflict between him & the board. He made his way to Werder Bremen in the winter transfer window of the 2007/08 season to participate in the club’s ‘runners up’ campaign.

2008/09 was his first full season in Bremen, which brought stable minutes and exposure in both the Bundesliga and European competition, as Özil was able to impress in both.

They played two major finals that season, losing and winning one a piece. They were able to glide past Leverkusen for the DFB Pokal, but they could only observe from a safe distance as Shakhtar Donetsk beat them in the final of the UEFA Cup. Their determined chase of knockout football resulted in a subpar campaign in Bundesliga, where Bremen only finished the season in 10th.

As Altıntop struggled on Bayern’s bench, Özil continued to gain followers through his flashy play.

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Filling the Shoes

As the new season drew closer, Bremen’s talisman Diego Ribas’ departure to Juventus in the summer of 2009 meant one thing for the 21 year old Özil. His time as a prospect came to an end as he welcomed the burden laid on him with courage, rather than with a stutter.

His young career’s best season followed. He recorded 12 Bundesliga assists and 9 goals, helping Bremen to finish in third. Their UEFA Cup campaign was not as bright as their previous one, as it was cut short by Valencia in the Round of 16.

The disappointment that occurred by their shortage of silverware must have been quickly erased from Özil’s mind, after he got a call from Joachim Löw, earning himself a spot in Löw’s final squad for the upcoming 2010 World Cup. His time was finally here.

Everyone’s Dream

Every athlete, both professional and amateur, dreams of representing his/her country. Mesut Özil managed to do that, playing for a team of Germany’s size and stature, while he was still only 21.

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He started every game, scored the winner against Ghana and helped to put Germany at the top of their group. He co-shared the assist leader award with four and helped guide Germany to the semi-final.

They were knocked out of the tournament by eventual champions Spain, in a game where they missed the tournament’s top goalscorer, Thomas Müller. Another run ended trophyless, but the fairy tale was only beginning for Özil.

Madrid & Mourinho: The absolute Peak

His performances at the World Cup earned him a trip to Madrid, as a part of a premium package intended to welcome José Mourinho, alongside Ángel Di Maria and fellow ‘countryman’ Sami Khedira. He was the first ‘Turkish’ player that signed for Real Madrid.

His partnership with Khedira and Xabi Alonso, laid the foundation for Mourinho to build on, and a Copa del Rey title soon followed. But after they were knocked out from the Champions League by the hands of their arch nemesis F.C Barcelona and finished runners up to the Catalans in La Liga, some eyebrows were raised.

Mourinho thought that it was time for reinforcements. The signings of Fábio Coentrão and Raphael Varane were followed by another Gelsenkirschen born, dual nationality midfielder. Nuri Şahin, with a silky touch and smart understanding of the game, was signed from Borussia Dortmund at just 22 years old. Şahin & Özil resembled gazelles, with their frail style of play and youngsters needing a mentor. An obvious name, whose contract with Bayern had just run off. Hamit Altıntop was then brought to Madrid to babysit.

Just a year previously, Özil celebrated the fact that he was the first ‘Turkish’ player to ever play for Real Madrid. Now there were three of them and their chemistry seem to be ticking.

Madrid were crowned the champions of La Liga in the 2011/12 season. They finished nine points ahead of Barcelona, reaching a grand total of 100 and scoring more than 120 goals. Özil was responsible for 22 (4G, 18A) of that 120+.

They were eliminated from the Champions League, via an Altıntop Derby”, where Bayern managed to knock out Los Blancos out in the semi-final.

Unsettling Affairs & the Buildup

By this time, Özil had already signed himself on with the top of the crop. He was performing at a different class and some of the strings that he pulled on the pitch made him look like a ‘puppet master’ rather than a footballer.

Yet Florentino Perez deemed the Supercopa win of the 2012/13 season as “not enough” while Madridistas finished La Liga in 3rd place. The club cut ties with Mourinho that summer.

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Following Mourinho’s departure and Don Carlo’arrival, Özil quickly fell out of favour. Then, Arsenal’s boss Arsene Wenger hinted that the German international was close to finalising a flash deadline day transfer to The Gunners, with the quirkiest of smirks. His fee, worth €47 million, was the deepest that Arsenal had reached to their pockets for any player.

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He played 26 Premier League games in the remainder of the season, recording 5 goals and 9 assists to his name. His blinding performances were enough to earn him a call-up to Löw’s squad for the upcoming World Cup, despite the instability.

In Another Life

Germany steamrolled over every opponent they faced in the 2014′ World Cup and there is no need to remind people what happened against Brazil in the semi-finals. After beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina thanks to an extra time winner by Mario Götze, Özil tasted the honour of lifting the golden trophy with his fellow ‘countrymen’.

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Feeding from the crumbs of the pride that Germany’s World Champions parade left behind, Turkey pulled Özil closer to its heart. He was ‘our boy’ after all. As he was born to Turkish parents, who would dare to claim any credit for his art, other than his ‘true’ origins?

There were few, who could gather their courage to speak the truth uncensored and uncolored. The heading of an article underlined the bitter facts, with this exact sentence:

“Gelsenkirschen has produced more Turkish world cup winners, than Turkey.”