Most kids only enjoy scoring goals but ever since I was young, I’ve always loved to give assists.
Why? It’s simple really. Through giving an assist, your friend can score and you help your team. Whenever I receive the ball, I always think offensively so I can pick out chances to score a goal or assist someone. That’s why it’s normal for me to always get the ball and play it forwards.
In my opinion, a creative player should always have fun on the pitch and should trust their playing style in order to help the team. I’ve been playing this way my whole life, which is why I still enjoy giving my team-mates assists to this day.
It all goes back to when I was growing up in Gelsenkirchen, when I’d be playing for five hours a day. I was a football freak. I loved it. I would go to school, play football and then play for my club afterwards. I’d finish school at 1pm and go to my club at 5pm. I filled those four hours in between by playing football with my friends. Then I’d go to training for another two hours or so.
In summer it would get dark a lot later. I’d look out, see my friends playing in the monkey cage and join them. I just played football almost all day, wearing my Zinedine Zidane shirt and trying to play exactly like him. It actually got to the stage where my dad spoke to my coach at Rot-Weiss Essen and said, ‘He can’t play, he’s tired and you can see that on the pitch because yesterday he spent 10 hours playing football with his mates’.
It wasn’t just friendly matches with my friends, I used to test myself against the bigger kids, too. I would play against my brother and his friends who were five or six years older than me. When I was 11, they were already 17 or 18.
It was tough to play against them and the pitch I grew up playing on wasn’t that nice because it always had stones on it, but that helped me improve. You had to be really focused when you got the ball. I think that kind of stuff helped me more and I would always go back for more.
That’s just how it was for me. Football was all there was for me. Maybe on the day before a game, I would try not to play until 11pm but I just wanted to do what I enjoyed. Football was, and still is my life.
The neighbourhood I grew up in was one where lots of foreigners had settled. Not just Turks but people from all over: Lebanese, Middle Eastern, African, a real mixture. It maybe wasn’t the nicest neighbourhood or the prettiest but I had so many friends living nearby, friends from all those different backgrounds, and that meant I loved my childhood there.
Some families in my neighbourhood occasionally went through difficult times and football was the answer for us kids. It was an escape for us. You loved playing because it meant you had no problems. You would stand on the pitch and football would be the only thing. It didn't matter if you were rich or poor or if you were German or Turkish. Football united us and we'd always be in such a good mood afterwards.
Gelsenkirchen is where I was born and grew up, and where my family and friends live. I’m really connected to the city. I began my football career there and have really nice memories of Schalke. At the time I had a coach, Norbert Elgert, who always supported me so well and took me forward, just like Schalke.
He was the man who made me believe that I could achieve a lot as a footballer. I always knew that I had potential because people that watched my games would occasionally tell me that I was definitely going to make it professionally.
But you don’t really take that in, even when your family and friends and other people tell you about your potential. But when I joined Schalke from Rot-Weiss Essen - a club I also have really nice memories of - Norbert was the person who took my game on. He taught me about tactics, he told me never to give up, to always carry on and never to be satisfied.
I’m so thankful to him because he was very important in my development. I still have a lot of contact with him. When you look at Schalke’s youth system at the time, it’s amazing to see the players that came through. You have the likes of Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer, myself, Benedikt Howedes, Ralf Fahrmann and more.
At Schalke there were also lots of established players who helped me. Guys like Lincoln, the Altintop twins, Kevin Kuranyi and Mladen Krstajic were all established pros and were always there for me. For myself as a young player, to have leaders like that, guys who have lots of Bundesliga experience praising me and giving me their full support, it gave me so much confidence.
With Lincoln, at that time at Schalke, everyone was watching him in Germany and everywhere of course, he was a Brazilian. What he showed us on the pitch with his performance was unbelievable and I learnt a lot from him.
We spoke a lot during those times at Schalke and he helped me a lot. He was fascinated with how cheeky I was on the pitch as a young player and at the confidence that I had. To hear that from such a big player obviously made me feel honoured, and it was great fun to have a kick around with him, and to learn from him.
Then I went to Bremen and had some really nice times there. In my career, I’ve been very lucky in that I always arrived at clubs that had world-class players. Diego was one of those players, at that time in Bremen, who put in the performances. The whole Bundesliga was talking about him, the whole world was talking about him.
He was a very interesting player, and when I used to watch him on the pitch, he was not the biggest player but he was safe on the ball and ice cold in front of goal. He scored many goals for Bremen and taught me a lot too.
Ultimately, in my position, everything is always quite tight. The moment you receive the ball in midfield, you’re already surrounded by three or four opponents who want to attack you. You just have to find the solutions quicker. So for me, everything happens automatically. Before I get the ball, I need to know exactly what I’m going to do with it.
I learnt a lot from these players and I’m really thankful to them. What I picked up from them helped me when I went to Real Madrid and I continued to learn from some of the best players in the world there.
I had dreamed of playing there because Zidane played for them as well, and I’ll never forget the first time I met my idol. Jose Mourinho took him to the first team as his assistant coach. He was in the dressing room, so of course my hands were sweating.
I was thinking about the time when I was young with my friends, I would buy his shirt and play as him in the cage where I was brought up. The feeling was very positive but still I was only a young player at 20 or 21, something like that. In the end though, he was really calm and I really enjoyed my first meeting with him.
During my time in Spain I got to know him quite well. I would always ask him how he knew before he’d even received the ball what the solutions were. That always fascinated me and because we both played in the same position, I was desperate to learn as much as I could from him.
After all, everything was different at Madrid. If you go from Werder Bremen, where you’re a talented young player, to such a big club full of big players, you’re nothing. If you play for Real Madrid, even if you get a draw against Barcelona, it’s the worst thing in the world. You have to win every game. If you win 10 games in a row and then maybe draw at home against a smaller team in the next game, you’re under so much pressure. I really learned about controlling the pressure and enjoying it while I was there.
That’s what I do now, just enjoy playing under pressure. I had a good time there, a successful time too, and made good friends. My best friend was Sergio Ramos and I’m still in contact with him. For me, he’s maybe the best defender in the world. He’s a good guy, a good friend and a good singer too! Believe it or not, he actually has a nice voice.
Another thing people always ask me about is what it was like to play with Cristiano Ronaldo and all I can say is that I’ve never seen a person like him. He works really hard and is the first guy to get into the training ground, then the last one to leave. He’s very professional and always wants to win, even in the training games. Of course I was looking at what he was doing, even something as simple as just looking at his shooting technique.
I really enjoyed playing with him because he made me better on the pitch and he’s a great guy off it, too. I gave him loads of assists and he doesn’t need me to remind him of that! It was easy to play with him because you didn’t need to create a lot of chances. Even if I just gave him two passes, he would score two goals and that’s why he’s one of the greatest footballers who’s ever lived.
After three years in Madrid, it was time to move to a new capital: London. It was a special moment because when I had moved to Real Madrid, Arsène Wenger had asked me if I wanted to come to Arsenal. I said, ‘Believe me, in the future, if I have the opportunity to change my club, you will be the first place for me’.
After that, we spoke and I decided to come to Arsenal because I remembered watching Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, such great footballers, and I wanted to be a part of that too. I wanted to come here and be successful with this team. In my first and second year I won the FA Cup, and then another in 2017, so I’m enjoying playing for this club.
I simply loving live here. London is a world city. There is so much you can do. There are many different cultures here and I just feel very, very comfortable. The club is huge and I enjoy playing for Arsenal. Living in London is awesome.
I have played for a few clubs, but to have my own song is a unique thing for me. When I heard it for the first time I had goosebumps and I still get them every time that I hear it. I’m just really thankful for that amazing support.
The fans have backed me ever since I arrived five years ago and because of that, I’ve been able to play in my preferred style. I always want to control the game, give assists and help my team. It was like that with me from the start. In my position you have many possibilities playing forward. You can demand the balls, make telling passes or score yourself.
I’ve been told so many times over the years that this is how Bergkamp played. Of course that makes me proud and it is an honour to be compared with him. Bergkamp is a living legend at Arsenal and he was an amazing football player.
But I do not want to compare myself with anybody. I have my own style and I’ve had it since I was a kid. I am proud of these comparisons, but I am Mesut Ozil and I’m not finished yet.
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