LONDON • All the humility that Mesut Oezil shows in putting the team first, focusing on selfless assists rather than the glory of scoring goals himself, was nurtured by strong, principled parents.
All the balance and beauty that defines Arsenal's graceful playmaker was developed on a hard, pebble-strewn surface in Gelsenkirchen. The shaping of Oezil, a World Cup winner and one of the most-acclaimed players of the Premier League season, started in the old coal-mining region of the Ruhr.
An hour in his company at London Colney reveals a footballer with principles, who still plays the game and lives his life to the values demanded by his parents, who had little money but plenty of love and advice for their four children.
"My parents gave me the right principles, so I didn't get carried away," he says. "They always told me to be down to earth, that I was not special. They told me always to be nice to people. They said, 'You maybe have the ability to be a football star but it doesn't make you better than your brother and sisters. Respect each other. Be together.'"
His upbringing also forged a strong social conscience manifested in his foundation. Last year, Oezil started inviting disabled children to Arsenal games. He invited children with cancer to his private box at the Emirates Stadium.
During the World Cup in Brazil, he funded German doctors to go into villages in the Amazon and operate on children with cleft palates. They started with 11 operations. After the final at the Maracana, he told the doctors: "Let's do more." So another 23 children had their lives transformed. His doctors are now in Africa.
"Usually I don't like talking about it," he says. "I come from a background where you don't show off the good things you do. It's modesty. My aim is helping kids. Kids are the future. I love children.
"I'm thinking of my own childhood. I know where I'm from. If I wanted something, I couldn't get it. Life wasn't easy. Things I didn't have in the past I try to give to kids. I know how it feels not to have things. We were poor but we had enough food to eat. It was a big family, four kids, and it was not like you could just go and buy something."
It was on the unpromising pitch near his Gelsenkirchen home that Oezil learnt how to beat opponents, how to hone techniques learnt from watching Zinedine Zidane on television and develop the gifts and mentality that have made him a world champion.
"I used to play eight to nine hours of football a day," he says. "I used to finish school at 1.30, then go outside to the pitch where I grew up with all my friends until 5.30, training with the local team. After training normally we came back and played more on the pitch."
He would practise Zidane's techniques and turns.
"Zidane was one of my idols, a player I learnt from and I wanted to do the same as him," he says. "He was a very down-to-earth person. I watched how he did his passes. He didn't do tricks for the sake of it. He never wanted to show off. He just played a clever game. He's the player who decides games."
Oezil nods appreciatively at the mention of his reputation as an honest player.
"It makes me happy to hear that. That's the way I am," he says. "I won't change. I don't dive. I can't dive. I just can't do that. I grew up playing on that hard surface, and I couldn't dive on it as I'd hurt my legs. There were stones on it."
He stays on his feet and remains sanguine.
"In the youth teams in Germany, I was always tackled hard but I never, ever got angry," he says. "Playing in that No. 10 position, I was used to those tackles. I knew the tackles would happen. It is better for me to beat the tackler with my creative abilities, not showing aggression or being angry against them."
His selfless traits are reflected in 16 Premier League assists, bringing Thierry Henry's record of 20 into range.
"I'm not thinking that I have to go past Henry's record," he says. "I've heard about the record but my aim is Arsenal's success. It's lovely to break records, and if it happens it will be nice, but it's not the most important thing. The team is."
Such an approach is why Oezil squared the ball to Aaron Ramsey at Villa Park (on Dec 13) rather than shooting.
"It was on my right foot. So it's 50-50 if I score," he says. "I saw he was in a better position, so he could score 100 per cent. It is more important to give the ball to the player in the better position than to shoot myself and risk missing.
"Both assists and goals give me pleasure - because both end up with a goal for the team."
THE TIMES, LONDON