GREAT CLAIMS are being made for Mesut Özil. So they should, and for more than the 21-year-old playmaker's brilliance on Germany's behalf in this World Cup.
Rarely has a player been the embodiment of such profound change when it comes to both a national side's ethic and ethnicity.
The Werder Bremen youngster has brought a glorious aesthetic to a team so often renowned for being grittily athletic. In reciting verses of the Koran under his breath as the German anthem plays before games, the practising Muslim of Turkish parents has also become the most stirring symbol of the admirable rainbow nation Joachim Lw is fielding.
Germany, the youngest and most culturally diverse team at the finals, has embraced what its press has been known to call multi-culti. Indeed, in their Last-16 encounter at Bloemfontein's Free State Stadium this afternoon, England will confront the footballing equivalent of own their cricket side, more than half of whom have roots outside of the country. In Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Piotr Trochowski, Mario Gomez and Cacau – and zil's fellow graduates from last year's under-21 European Championship-winning team, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Dennis Aogo and Marko Marin – Germany have players who trace their lineage across the globe. Either by birthplace or background, these men could have represented Poland, Brazil, Ghana, Tunisia, Nigeria or Bosnia. When it comes to cross-border competition though, in part because of a liberalising of laws and attitudes concerning nationality, they are committed Deutschlanders.
That the Gelsenkirchen-born zil chose Germany was not, he has said, "a decision against my Turkish roots". It was, instead, a positive expression of how comfortable the unassuming character feels in a firmly opened-up country that his father Mustafa moved to aged two. The different influences at work in the player's make-up find their expression in an invigorating on-field approach. "My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game," zil has said. "The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part."
zil has been lauded from far and near. "We have always sought an out-and-out No.10 and now we have found one," said team-mate Klose. "Mesut has made the position his own for Germany. He is an absolute bonus for us." He has done so only 16 months and 13 caps on from his senior international debut. And quicker than Lw, who cautions about proclaiming him the finished article, had anticipated.
"To be a world-class player requires a lot of development and the need to be consistent over several years," said Lw. "But Mesut, no doubt, has what it takes. He is a player that fits perfectly with my ideas. He plays a very high level, he can win the ball easily and then produce a telling shot. He is a playmaker and can produce some passes which split defences."
zil's immigrant stock and nimble, graceful movement, the range and ransacking nature of his passing, and ability to pop up to start a move and then suddenly reappear to be on the end of it, have inevitably drawn comparisons with Algerian-Frenchman Zinedine Zidane. Yet zil might be said to have matured more quickly. Three games into his first major tournament, he has earned two man-of-the-match awards. Australia's Tim Cahill called him the "devastating factor" in the 4-0 drubbing of his side. He was most certainly that the other night with a screamer of a match-winner against Ghana. If zil has a weakness, it is that the goal was only his second for his country, but it is no exaggeration to suggest zil's importance in the long term for Germany could prove akin to that Zidane enjoyed with Les Bleus.
Unless, that is, your preference is for declaring zil the new Lionel Messi, as Horst Hrubesch, a European Championship winner with West Germany in 1980, did the other day. "We in Germany are prone to rave about foreign players," he said. "We praise Wayne Rooney to the heavens, likewise (Cristiano] Ronaldo or Messi. But we have our own Messi. Our Messi is zil."
Entering the final year of his contract at Bremen, few expect Barcelona-admirer zil to remain at the club beyond his participation in the World Cup. For obvious reasons, on these shores his exploits against England at the under-21 championships in Sweden last June are considered the starting point on his road to membership of the game's current playing elite. He ran Stuart Pearce's side ragged, scoring twice and providing assists for the other two goals in a 4-0 final mauling. In the aftermath, it was reported that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was then hovering and that a host of managers in charge of heavyweight clubs were ready to make a move for the schemer.
The reality is that football's intelligentsia would already have been alert to zil and his precious abilities. Only a month before he took England apart, the attacker was a member of the Bremen side that lost after extra time to Shakhtar Donetsk in the last UEFA Cup final. The venue was the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, base of his boyhood favourites Fenerbahe, in the city of Istanbul where he expected support because it was home to his family and friends.
This band had cause to celebrate earlier that May as zil plundered the only goal in his club's German Cup final win over Bayer Leverkusen in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. The strike confirmed him as the successor to Brazilian Diego in the playmaker role at the club which bought him from Schalke in a deal worth ?4.3 million (3.5m) only 17 months earlier. Then still in his teens, he and his father were accused of putting earnings before development in vacating a club that had carefully nurtured his talents, given him a first-team debut at 17, and afforded him Champions League exposure. Indeed, he was only a year within the youth set-up at Schalke – arriving there after spells with Westfalia 04, Teutonia Schalke, DJK Falke Gelsenkirchen and five years on Rot-Weiss Essen's books – before they felt it necessary to unleash him on the senior stage. It was surely the first sighting of a performer who will prove to be very special for a long time.