An Arsenal assist king, ex-Real Madrid midfield marauder and World Cup winning football god with Germany, it's been a long and successful journey for Mesut Özil, and one that began all the way back in the Bundesliga with Schalke and Werder Bremen.
Running toward the ecstatic away fans at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro one special July night four years ago, Özil carried the iconic World Cup trophy between his hands, his place in German sporting folklore secure. Ever present for Die Mannschaft at those finals in Brazil, the distinctive midfielder had come a long way since his beginnings in the game on the streets of Gelsenkirchen and then with Rot-Weiss Essen.
"Özil reminds me of Zidane!" The words spoken by ex-Arsenal and France great Robert Pires will have sat favourably with the current Gunner, who counts Zizou as one of his idols. Indeed, it was at Schalke's famed Knappenschmiede youth academy - which he joined in 2005 - that Özil began to emulate some of Zidane's trademark threaded passing while showing signs of the Frenchman's supreme reading of the game.
Weighing in with ten goals as Schalke delivered the German Junior Championship, the midfield maestro was soon called into the senior side and made his Bundesliga debut at just 17, coming on to replace Hamit Altintop as the Royal Blues were held to a 1-1 draw against Eintracht Frankfurt in August 2006.
Schalke finished as Bundesliga runners-up to Stuttgart that same season, Özil making 19 top-flight appearances as he reputation began to steadily grow. Hitting his stride in Germany's top-flight and the UEFA Champions League the following season, Werder Bremen pounced and lured the tremendous talent to northwestern Germany during the winter transfer window.
Looking to bolster their squad for their own attempted title push, the River Islanders managed a second-placed finish behind champions Bayern Munich with Özil on board, Germany's No.10 even registering his first Bundesliga goal in a thrilling 3-3 draw against Karlsruhe in the closing weeks of the campaign. Yet it was in the 2008/09 season that the trickster truly grabbed global attention.
His dream-like dribbling now combining with plenty of feints, swerves and superb finishing, it was abundantly clear Özil was headed to stardom. Chalking up 14 assists, the player's first trophy also arrived in the form of the DFB Cup, his goal in the final proving the difference as Werder overcame Bayern Leverkusen to make up for an earlier disappointment in the UEFA Cup showpiece defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk.
“We have our own Messi, and he is Özil.” Germany Under-21 coach of the day, Horst Hrubesch, said of the future Arsenal man. Already lighting up the international youth scene with his nation's Under-19s, the Gelsenkirchen native was called into Under-21 action while still 18. He would win his first senior international cap prior to lifting the 2009 Under-21 European Championship, playing in every game and even scoring in the final as Germany defeated England 4-0.
His coach at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, once said of the 29-year-old, “Özil is unique. There is no copy of him, not even a bad copy.” Former Bayern Munich tactician Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, stated: "Mesut Özil is the dangerous one - he's the one we need to keep the closest eye on," while in charge of current side Manchester City.
The entire cast of the Bundesliga were keeping close watch on his superb skills and clinical passing in 2009/10, when Özil was on fire, producing nine goals and 16 assists. With Bremen reaching another Cup final - which they lost against Bayern - and competing in the UEFA Europa League, their magnificent midfielder managed a jaw-dropping 29 assists and ten goals in 46 games across all competitions.
In May of 2010, one more milestone arrived for Özil when he brought his Bundesliga appearance tally to 100 against, of all teams, Schalke, the man of the moment even scoring in a 2-0 victory for the Green-Whites. With Werder in the Bundesliga, he would manage 71 games, score 13 goals and provide 32 assists. Little surprise then, that Real came calling.
Spanish Liga and Copa del Rey honours followed before a switch to Arsenal, where he has won the FA Cup on three occasions and in which time become a FIFA World Cup winner. And it seems even more success is certain for Mesut Özil, the player who was made in the Bundesliga.