Making room for Ozil presents a problem for Real Madrid
Real Madrid's signing of World Cup star Mesut Ozil sparked predictable headlines
Mesut doesn't have a shirt number yet, and won't until Real Madrid sheds a player
Rafael van der Vaart makes sense, but who can afford the fee and his wages?
MADRID -- Mesut Ozil mostly mumbled. The media mostly handled his presentation with predictable immaturity. There was little to grab, so reporters clutched at familiar straws when Ozil was unveiled as a Real Madrid player on Wednesday. He is the last of the summer signings at the Santiago Bernabéu, and the most exciting -- at least until he opened his mouth and his translated voice crackled through channel six on the headsets.
The covers of Madrid sports dailies Marca and AS ran a picture from the team's Web site of Ozil looking up admiringly at Madrid's collection of European Cups -- a collection the club said, without saying, that is bigger than Barcelona's -- with the new signing's obligatory declaration: "I have joined the best team in the world."
Marca insisted that Barcelona had made a dastardly and, more important, desperate attempt to torpedo the bid at the last minute with blank checks and big promises but failed because Ozil only had eyes for Madrid. The story was designed as a corrective, a "he loves Madrid, really" in response to comments made by Ozil in which he admitted that as a kid he had supported Barcelona and to reports that he was on the verge of joining the Catalans a week ago, until Pep Guardiola said, "No." Sign a Barca reject? Never! Beat Barca to a player they were desperate to get? Oh, yes! And look how committed he is! All that cash and still he chose Madrid! On a mere 5 million euros ($6.4 million) a year, after taxes.
If it was corrective, and it was also inevitable. Almost as inevitable, in fact, as the headline in the Catalan daily El Mundo Deportivo that declared: "Real Madrid sign a culé [Barca fan]," as if Ozil is some kind of double agent set to bring down Madrid from within. As if Madrid had so little pride that it could only take those who are Barca -- and Barca rejects to boot. As if it matters. It was almost as inevitable as the headline that, from atop a high horse, screamed: "Barcelona creates players, Madrid buys them." Or the fact that the player they were raving about last week became a bad influence with a dodgy entourage this week.
Barca good, Madrid bad. Madrid good, Barca bad. Even when they're right -- after all, much as David Villa, Dani Alves and Zlatan Ibrahimovic cost Barca more than $125 million, they have indeed developed an astonishing amount of their players, from Xavi to Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi to Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol to Victor Valdés, and Pedro to Sergio Busquets -- the charges are so premeditated, so unwaveringly partisan, so desperately inevitable, that they're sort of wrong.
It was all pretty standard stuff, both from Ozil and the media. Except that lurking among the platitudes and the politeness were a couple of interesting answers masked by the unremarkable manner in which they were delivered. Like the fact, for all the obsession over it, that Ozil isn't actually fasting for Ramadan; and his declaration that he had spoken to Jose Mourinho (the "best coach in the world") and, ultimately, his apparently simple response to the question about where he plays best:
"I am," Ozil replied, "a No. 10. I like to play behind the strikers."
Well, duh. Obviously.
Maybe. But despite the subsequent rider -- "It's up to the coach" -- the response was so immediate and quietly confident that it was significant.
"Ozil: another problem" the Barcelona-based Sport declared gleefully. If he is a problem, it is, on the face of it at least, a nice problem: In a summer of slightly underwhelming if very sensible signings, chosen by a coach for once, here's a player who ticks all the boxes that satisfy all areas of the club, from the marketing department to the technical staff, president and coach. Germany's Ozil was one of the revelations of the World Cup, a skillful attacking player. He's young, too, someone who can still improve, and all for only $19 million, rising to $26 million. That's half of what Manchester City just spent on James Milner. And who would you rather have?
Yet, Sport had a point. With Ozil's signing, Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano insisted that the club was finished, the squad complete. But the club lacks a left back who convinces (Marcelo attacks better than he defends, Alvaro Arbeloa is right-footed and Royston Drenthe is Royston Drenthe) and the striker Mourinho wanted -- Ozil isn't a No. 9.
In fact, he is not any number yet.
Ozil does not have a shirt number and can't have one until someone leaves. Madrid has 26 players, one more than UEFA rules allow. Mourinho has made it known that he wants 23 -- three goalkeepers and two players for each of the 10 outfield positions. Madrid also only just complies with the quota of Spaniards demanded by UEFA rules, meaning that the three departures have to be foreigners, and that limits the club's room to maneuver.
Deciding which players to shed, of course, is no easy matter. Fernando Gago and at least one of the two Diarras -- Lassana or Mahamadou -- head the list. Drenthe will be encouraged to leave, too. But the real logjam is at media-punta, the position behind the striker(s). Mourinho wants two players per position, but with Ozil's confident statement of intent, Madrid has four at media-punta: Ozil, Sergio Canales, Kaka and Rafael van der Vaart.
Who do you get rid of -- and how? Not Ozil, obviously. He's the new star signing.
Not Canales, either. Mourinho was determined to keep the 19-year-old, who has impressed in the preseason, and not send him out on loan. Madrid is conscious, too, of not curtailing his progress. And, besides, he's Spanish. So while his minutes may now be more limited, he'll stay.
Not Kaka, obviously. Actually, why not? The Brazilian is recovering from knee surgery and will be out up to four months. By the time he comes back, Ozil or Canales may well be entrenched. And Kaka did little in his first season to warrant a place -- he certainly did not perform like the man who had been a Balón d'Or winner just two seasons before. When he's fit again, a return to the team could prove impossible. No wonder that, long term, many saw in Ozil's declaration a threat to Kaka. But can Madrid really sell the player who was a standard-bearer for the second galactic era, the third-most-expensive footballer of all time? Probably not. In the future maybe, but certainly not now.
That leaves van der Vaart, who, like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, does not want to leave. Like Robben and Sneijder, he can still be useful for Real Madrid. And for all that Marca's cover led on "Robben, well sold" and launched a campaign to bury "Whiskey Sneijder," we all know how their sales ended up. But like Robben and Sneijder, who were sold for a combined $51 million -- the same amount it has cost Madrid to get Ozil and Angel Di Maria (before bonuses) -- van der Vaart was brought to the club by the former president, not the current one. And like Robben and Sneijder, in all probability he will have no choice.
The problem for Madrid is how to get rid of him. It tried last year and failed. Who can afford a fee that will satisfy Madrid? And who can afford his wages? Madrid has to find a club that wants him and a club it wants to sell him to.
A club like FC Barcelona, perhaps? Madrid would get its new star, its cash and a smaller squad; Barcelona, whose own squad is as short as Madrid's is long, would get a very good player who could be genuinely useful, one who offers something none of its other midfielders do. As for van der Vaart, he would get a big club and the chance to stay in Spain. Even the media would be happy. They'd certainly have a story on both sides of the divide. In Castile, Barcelona will have bought a Real Madrid reject, a man who only pitched up at the Camp Nou as a desperate afterthought. In Catalonia, they will have stolen the midfielder they need from right under their rival's nose, a man who is finally where he really wanted to be, after being a martyr in Madrid.
And, as always, what yesterday was white will today turn black. Or blaugrana.