Joachim Low's likely benching of Germany's Mesut Ozil not solely down to football
MOSCOW -- At the beginning of Saturday's news conference, Joachim Low was happy to keep up the pretence. No, the Bundestrainer shook his head, the fact that Julian Draxler had been picked to face the media alongside him should not be taken as a hint. "I'm picking the lineup, not [media officer] Jens Grittner," the 58-year-old smiled. A little later on, however, Low revealed in a radio interview with state broadcaster ARD that the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder would indeed be starting against Mexico on Sunday.
"It's because he's really developed [as a player] over the last two, three years," Low explained. "He's been playing for us for a while now, [and] he was very good at the Confed Cup, too."
Draxler's inclusion vs. El Tri is a minor surprise that could beget a much bigger one. For the first time ever in Low's reign, Mesut Ozil might not make the first XI in a tournament game. The Arsenal playmaker was "ready to feature" after his knee complaint, Low said at the presser, before immediately adding that he had "two or three ideas in his head" and not settled on the team sheet.
That much ambiguity over the inclusion of a fully fit Ozil is unprecedented. Since the 29-year-old forced his way into the squad in the autumn of 2009, he has been the only player to feature in in every single one of Low's matches in charge at World Cups and Euros. This remarkable run could well come to an end, however, for reasons that are in all likelihood not solely related to sporting considerations.
Sources have told ESPN that Low has been far unhappier with Ozil's and Ilkay Gundogan's conduct in the much-discussed Erdogan affair than he has let on. The national manager apparently feels the duo have unnecessarily complicated the buildup to Russia by first meeting the Turkish president and then showing a lack of contrition. Members of the German FA delegation privately insist Low has not fallen out with either player, but he is said to have been a little annoyed by the need to deal with matters that have nothing to do with football as such.
Gundogan was not expected to start in any case. But it will be instructive to see whether the manager's displeasure with the two Premier-League-based squad members will be strong enough to bring about a first-ever snub of Ozil, one of the mainstays of the side for nearly a decade and the player whose immigrant background and superlative passing skills best symbolises the national team's changed identity on the pitch. Draxler hailed his teammate as "the most creative player on the pitch" with "unparalleled technical ability," and you won't find anyone in the German FA delegation who'd disagree. On his day, as the Sade song goes, Ozil is Low's smoothest operator, moving in space with minimum waste and maximum joy.
Low benching the Arsenal man might also be a good idea to keep the boo-boys in the stands at bay. Gundogan was jeered mercilessly during the friendly vs. Saudi Arabia eight days ago. Low is worried that noisy fan dissent could follow the team all the way to the Luzhniki Stadium and inhibit the team in their crucial opening game. Taking Ozil out of the equation on Sunday would reduce the tension. A start in Germany's second game would be less fraught, especially if the holders were to start their title defence with a win against Juan Carlos Osorio's team. What's more, Ozil's injury problems going into the tournament would give Low an easy way of dressing up the decision as a mere precaution.
The main danger from the Gelsenkirchen-born maestro's point of view is that Marco Reus, the player set to benefit from Ozil's possible omission might take his chance to make himself indispensable. Either way, Ozil's place in the first XI is more precarious than it's ever been. Low might feel that bit of uncertainty could prove motivating.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein