July 1, 2010
By ROGER COHEN
JOHANNESBURG — No player has fascinated me more at the World Cup than Mesut Özil. He has the languid self-assurance on the ball that comes only to the greatest footballers. Where others are hurried, he has time. He conjures space with a shrug. His left foot can, with equal ease, caress a pass or unleash a shot.
Özil, at 21, oozes class. He’s a German. That’s part of my fascination. Özil’s a Muslim German of Turkish descent who believes he has married traditions: “My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part.”
The technique undid Ghana in the group stage with a fizzing volleyed goal. The attitude left England’s Gareth Barry for dead as Özil burst down the left wing to set up Germany’s fourth goal in its demolition of English illusions. Poor England, consumed by inhibition before Özil’s invention!
Özil’s a German but only just. The years I spent in Berlin in the late 1990s were marked by angry debate as the country moved from a “Volkisch” view of nationality — one based on the bloodlines of the German Volk — to a more liberal law that gave millions of immigrants an avenue to citizenship for the first time. Özil would not have been German until the immigration law of 1999.
It’s this legislation that has birthed the Germany of Özil and his teammates Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng (Tunisian and Ghanaian fathers respectively) and Cacau (naturalized Brazilian) and Dennis Aogo (Nigerian descent). The Volk have spread wings to hoist Germany into the last eight.
There’s a third reason, beyond brilliance and birthright, for my fascination with Özil. He is probably only on the team because “The Big Man” of the German squad, Michael Ballack, was injured a few weeks before the tournament.
Similarly, Ghana has advanced to the last eight — despite that defeat to Germany — even in the absence of its “Big Man,” the injured star Michael Essien. As for Uruguay and Paraguay, two other quarter-finalists, they had no “Big Man” to begin with.
Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the first African World Cup has seen stars fail where they were not backed by teamwork. Cameroon, with its Big Man Samuel Eto’o of Inter Milan, and Ivory Coast, with Big Man Dider Drogba of Chelsea, are both out. Ghana, meanwhile, has endured through discipline and coordination.
Africa needs more of that kind of spirit. Since decolonization began in the second half of the 20th century, it has too often been the continent of “The Big Man.” That was the sobriquet V.S. Naipaul gave in “A Bend in the River” to the African dictator plundering the city of Kisangani in Congo through mercenaires granted license to run amok.
The colonizer’s plundering merely gave way to the Big Man’s impunity in stripping Africa’s assets bare.
Perhaps the most glaring examples have been in Zimbabwe and Congo, potentially wealthy nations that have hurtled backward. Robert Mugabe has single-handedly dismembered Zimbabwe, a wanton act hauntingly evoked in Peter Godwin’s “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.”
In Congo, over a 30-year dictatorship that defined kleptocracy (Western-supported kleptocracy at that), Mobutu Sese Seko spread the wreckage that has provided the fissured stage for the recent slaughter of millions. Between games I’ve been reading Tim Butcher’s extraordinary “Blood River,” a riveting chronicle of the unraveling of a nation told through an impossible journey across Congo. Read it to understand African tragedy.
So I’m pleased that in this World Cup, the Big Men have proved dispensable. And I’m pleased it’s being held in a country that shares African problems but has not yielded to Africa’s curse.
South Africa has the mineral wealth — 90 percent of the world’s platinum reserves and 40 percent of its gold — that has proved the “resource curse” of African nations including Nigeria. It has what Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of former president Thabo Mbeki, described to me as “a very warped society” born in part of big mining, with its single-sex hostels for laborers torn from their families and thrust into those incubators of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. It is still a land where poverty is racialized.
But it has resisted the devastating “Big Man” syndrome. Over the past 16 years, South Africa has had four free elections and four presidents. A robust judiciary and free press frustrate attempts to cow them. The interaction, under the law, of various interest groups holds South Africa back from the brink. This is its great lesson for a continent where, by 2025, one in four of every person under 24 will live.
“Ke Nako!” — “It’s Time!” — goes the chorus of the most haunting song of this exuberant World Cup: “Now it’s time to unite as black and white to be the pride of Africa’s might.” Yes, it’s time for an end to the African Big Man who trampled that pride.
When I lived in Germany, a Social Democrat once told me that the country’s ultimate victory over Hitler would lie in the reconstitution of the Jewish community, then being pursued by luring Jews of the former Soviet Union. I always thought that was a vain, slightly kitschy idea. But the Germany of Özil and Aogo is such a victory over the Big Man who destroyed Europe.
Africa, take note.