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What is wrong with Mesut Ozil?

What is wrong with Mesut Ozil?  Is it a recurring back problem, is he unfit, doesn’t he want to play for Arsenal, or is it a mental health issue?

Of course, I don’t know, I don’t have access to the confidential conversations, to his medical records, or anything like that, and clubs rarely give much information about players well-being.

But the stresses and strains are there.  Indeed, it was only after Per Mertesacker retired from football that he felt able to admit how the anxiety of playing had made him feel in the build-up to each match.  Anyone who has met him, even for just a few seconds would admit that he comes across as one of the good guys; courteous, kind, respectful.  And besides he’s a giant – what’s he got to be afraid of?

And yet when he did admit he had suffered from terrible anxiety before every match, Lothar Matthaus criticised him for this admission, suggesting that Per could no longer be considered as head of the Arsenal academy.

Respect for his coming out and admitting the problem in order to help others realise that anxiety is something that can afflict anyone?  Not a chance, not in football.

Indeed, it was such a woeful statement that one began to wonder if there has been any progress in understanding what players are and what makes them perform.

So let’s go back to basics.  Top players need to have natural talent and a strong physique.  That’s the starters – if the body isn’t right there’s nothing much that can be done.

Second, they have to be able to train hard to get themselves up to peak fitness.  Some players simply can’t do that – they will always try to do less, always think they know best.  Thus, they never make it.

Third they need to be able to take the physical and mental stress and strain of both football and public exposure, without suffering a mental or physical breakdown.

And fourth, whatever the problem is, they need to be able to deal with it all in the full glare not just of publicity, but of fantasy – the invented daily stories that the newspapers publish and the blogs disseminate, all done without any care for the well-being of the player under discussion.

The first time I ever read a comment about a footballer being “troubled” as it used to be called, it was in the 1970s and related to an Arsenal manager getting a phone call on Christmas Day from the wife of a first team player, the wife telling the manager that her husband was threatening to kill himself.

To his eternal credit the manager did not instruct the wife to tell the player to “act like a man” but instead, abandoned his own family and went to visit the player.   Later, asking the wife why she had called the manager she replied that she didn’t know who else to call.

Now matters have improved.  Any physical twinge, any hint of a muscular strain, and the player reports it.   What’s more every top club has its resident psychologist who will work alongside others involved with the psychological side of football: motivation, positive attitudes, stress avoidance and of course general mental well-being.

And that is a very worthwhile investment by the clubs, not just on humanitarian grounds but also because around a quarter of all adults living in Britain today will at some stage suffer from mental health issues that require treatment.

But still, among commentators in the popular press there are those who see any sign of stress or difficulty as a weakness, even though statistics show that at least three children in every class in school have a diagnosable mental health issue.  Goodness knows what these writers do to their own children if they ever dare complain about stress.

As for the players – especially those who come from modest financial backgrounds and who have perhaps been brought up with the notion that any sign of mental health issues is an issue to be ashamed of – admitting anything is wrong can be difficult.

So instead, according to many fans and to their eternal shame some journalists, players who are considered to be “not up for it” should immediately be removed from the team.  No thought of any help or support.  They should take it as an honour to play – and besides they are being paid enough aren’t they?

I don’t know if Ozil is being dropped regularly by Arsenal because he is not considered the right player tactically for certain games, because he has a niggling physical injury, or because he had a mental health issue.  Or indeed for some other reason.

But what I do know is that the constant pointing of the finger at him can’t be doing him any good.  Besides, many is the time when we have been told that a player can’t play in a big game, only to find him being listed on the team sheet one hour before the match.  Was it a dramatic recovery?  Unlikely, more it was possibly a case of trying to put the opposition off.

That’s a fair tactic, but it doesn’t help those who really are suffering from an injury that we can’t all see and appreciate.

We do not have the absolute right as fans to know about the injury and health issues surrounding players.  We do not own them like cattle or pets.  They have every right to secrecy, as does the club.

And as for those of us who support the club, only by respecting the privacy of Mesut and every other player who is not in the team, and by respecting the approach of the club can we truly give our support.

Plus it is not just a club issue.  It is the decent thing to do.

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