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Ozil’s agent tells ESPN: ‘Arsenal fans deserve honest explanation’ about star’s exile

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This week, Mesut Ozil‘s exile at Arsenal has extended to unprecedented levels. The 32-year-old cannot play senior football again until January at the earliest after being left out of the Gunners’ Premier League and Europa League squads for what manager Mikel Arteta insisted on Wednesday night were solely footballing reasons.

“My conscience is very calm because I have been really fair,” Arteta said. “What I can say from my side is that it is just a football decision. My level of communication with him has been really high, and we know what to expect with each other.

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“My job is to get the best out of every player, to contribute to the team performance. Here I feel at the moment, today, that I have failed.”

Ozil arrived at Arsenal from Real Madrid in September 2014 for a then-club-record £42 million fee, which became the physical manifestation of what then-chief executive Ivan Gazidis heralded as an “escalation in financial firepower.” The Germany international was intended to be the crown jewel of a new era, a club loosened from the constraints of self-funding their move to Emirates Stadium from Highbury, finally ready to challenge for the game’s major honours once again.

For a time, Ozil lived up to his billing of the “King of the assists.” During the 2015-16 Premier League season, he set up 19 goals — a tally only ever beaten by Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne. Ozil’s £350,000-a-week contract was also hailed as a landmark moment for both player and club when he agreed to stay in north London in January 2018, but instead of cementing his status as Arsenal’s star player, he now finds himself fighting for his future.

Questions over his consistency and application have grown, and despite starting the first 10 Premier League games under Arteta, he has not played a minute since March 7. He hasn’t even been named to a matchday squad since June 25.

These days, Ozil is a lightning rod for criticism and emblematic for some of mismanagement that has undermined Arsenal’s pursuit of trophies. Yet, Ozil’s agent, Dr. Erkut Sogut (he holds a doctorate in law), has predictably hit back, believing the club must come clean about the real explanations behind their treatment of the midfielder.

In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Sogut states, among other things, that Arteta is not telling the truth for claiming Ozil’s absence is a football decision; Ozil should be shown the same loyalty Arteta received in his final two years as an Arsenal player; and Ozil turned down an offer from another club that included a £30 million signing-on fee to stay at Arsenal in 2018.


Arteta has largely attempted to sidestep Ozil questions when asked on an almost-weekly basis during the manager’s news conferences at London Colney. Except the topic could no longer be avoided when Arsenal submitted their 25-man squad for the Premier League this week, leaving out one of English football’s highest-paid players, and Arteta said he has “failed” to get the best out of Ozil when he spoke prior to Thursday night’s 2-1 win at Rapid Vienna in the Europa League.

Technical director Edu stated earlier this month that Ozil’s selection was determined by performance alone, but sources have told ESPN that other factors were influential.

Sogut told ESPN: “Arsenal fans deserve an honest explanation, not [Arteta] saying, ‘I failed Ozil.’ You didn’t fail Ozil. You failed to be fair, honest and transparent and treat someone with respect who has a contract and was loyal all the time.

“Every single person outside knows he hasn’t treated him fairly. He didn’t give him a chance to show himself this season. If he is still under contract, the player should have the option to stay and fight for his place. Mesut hasn’t been given that. Why would you put a player on the bench twice for 90 minutes [against Brighton and Crystal Palace in June] if he wasn’t fit or committed?

“Everyone says he’s training well. Per Mertesacker [Arsenal defender, 2011-18 and now a coach at the club’s academy] said this publicly. I spoke with at least five teammates who say he is training great. They say Mesut is one of their best players, and they cannot understand why he is left out. So it can’t be the training. If it is not the pitch, what are the footballing reasons? If you talk, you should tell the truth that the Arsenal fans deserve, otherwise don’t talk at all.”

Arsenal declined to comment when contacted by ESPN, in light of both Arteta and Edu already stating the club’s position on the record.

Edu insisted last month Ozil’s omission was a “performance issue,” and those with longer-term memories would point to a series of peripheral performances in big games as well as his part-time role under Unai Emery, who later claimed in a May interview that “the attitude that he adopted, and the commitment levels, well, they weren’t enough.”

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Mikel Arteta says Mesut Ozil had “opportunities like everybody else” to make Arsenal’s Premier League squad.

Last December, Ozil took to social media to highlight and condemn the treatment of around 10 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang after reports emerged suggesting over a million people had been held in detention camps, and he accused other Muslims of staying quiet on the issue. Arsenal, who have numerous commercial interests in China, including owning a chain of restaurants, later took the unusual step of releasing a statement distancing themselves from Ozil’s Instagram post, adding, “Arsenal have always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”

Ozil was deleted from a computer game in China for his actions, and the Gunners’ game against Manchester City in mid-December was dropped by state TV.

In April, he refused to join his teammates in taking an initial 12.5% pay cut because of a perceived lack of clarity in how the money would be spent, along with the manner of the conversations between the first-team squad and senior club officials.

“You have to understand the bigger picture,” Sogut said. “The [Uighur situation] created problems for the whole Premier League, not just Arsenal. He expected to get more support from the club. It is not talking about politics, it is about human rights, putting people in detention centres. Imagine a football player comes out and says, ‘This is inhumane.’ Is that politics or empathy?”

Ozil remains on cordial terms with Arteta, but Sogut contrasted Ozil’s treatment with that of Arteta, who Sogut feels is responsible for the midfielder’s exile.

Arteta joined the Gunners from Everton in 2011, becoming club captain in 2014. However, he made just 11 appearances in the 2014-15 season due to injury but signed a one-year extension, only to suffer further fitness problems, making just one league appearance in his final six months, on the last day of the season as an 88th-minute substitute against Aston Villa.

“He started zero games in the Premier League in his last season,” Sogut said of Arteta. “He wasn’t there in the last six months at all, busy doing his coaching badges and meeting coaches for his future. Mesut plays for one English team and that’s it because he feels he can only play for that team. He is a Gunner in the end.

“Mesut is not a player who is yesterday a Toffee and today a Gunner. Arteta didn’t play at all in the final two years, but they still registered him because he was given a contract. [Then-manager] Arsene Wenger put him on the field for the final two minutes of his last game just to give him a nice moment, even though he wasn’t fit for months. Look at how [Arteta] was treated in his final two years, and how Mesut is getting treated in his final year.”

Sogut insisted Ozil would remain committed to fighting to regain his place in January, when Premier League sides can resubmit their squads for the second half of the campaign, pointing to the revival he enjoyed in the latter part of Emery’s tenure. Ozil played just 71 minutes in the first 10 league games of 2019-20, a consequence in part of persistent back problems and a delayed start to the season following a carjacking incident in which he was approached by an armed gang while travelling through London with teammate Sead Kolasinac.

“Maybe [Arsenal’s] goal was to wait until the end and Mesut would say, ‘I want to leave,'” Sogut said.

“If Mesut would have done that, the club can say he wants to go, and if they can’t find him a club, they have an excuse and can say, ‘We can’t register you because you wanted to leave.’ But they knew for a long time that Mesut wanted to stay. He made it very clear. Maybe they wanted him to feel unwanted and unwelcome, but he wants to play for the badge.

“Mesut is 32 years old. He has a few more years in his career, but it is more about the way of treatment. Mesut is someone who fights for his rights. The contract was a big commitment for him. He could have left for another club like Alexis Sanchez [who left Arsenal to join Manchester United in 2018] did. He could have left [Arsenal] and got a £30 million signing-on fee [somewhere else] as a free agent at the peak of his career. But he stayed loyal.

“Maybe the club will change their position in January and register him. You never know what will happen.”

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Stewart Robson jokes that Mesut Ozil would be better served playing Gunnersaurus than sitting on Arsenal’s bench.

Sogut finished our conversation by revealing the German Football Federation have sent Ozil an official apology for a lack of protection he cited when retiring from international duty amid criticism of pictures taken while meeting controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ozil grew up in Germany but has Turkish ancestry and released a statement at the time claiming, “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Sogut said: “Three weeks ago, the German Football Federation apologised for the treatment of Mesut.”

The financial impact of COVID-19 has been felt sharply across the Premier League, with several clubs announcing pay freezes or cutbacks as a result of the loss of revenue from being denied fans in stadiums on matchdays. The Gunners cut members of their scouting team from across Europe and a variety of staff (reportedly 55 non-playing jobs) across various departments including hospitality and commercial. Arsenal subsequently announced that Jerry Quy, the man who has played the role of club mascot Gunnersaurus since its introduction in 1993, would be made redundant. Ozil offered to pay Quy’s salary for as long as Ozil remained a player at the club.

“You wouldn’t expect a club with class to make 55 people redundant just after winning the FA Cup or sacking a mascot after 27 years of service, just before making a £45 million signing [of Thomas Partey],” Sogut said. “And it doesn’t help if people from outside the club speak on their behalf. It unfortunately gives a very bad picture of the club which we are not used to having at a team like Arsenal.

“I would be very concerned for any club if someone repeatedly spoke on their behalf and clearly had a significant influence on and off the pitch.

“Mesut cannot speak now because of confidentiality, but one day he will, and we’ll see what people think.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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