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Ozil kicking the beautiful game to question its morality

Ozil kicking the beautiful game to question its morality

FOOTBALL: Similar to his laconic playing style, Mesut Ozil seems to court controversy in an almost effortless manner.

By Ben Tirebuck

Saturday 21 December 2019, 09:15AM

Mesut Ozil dipped his toes into the political arena this week and received a stern backlash from Chinese authorities while his club sat on the fence. Photo AFP.

Mesut Ozil dipped his toes into the political arena this week and received a stern backlash from Chinese authorities while his club sat on the fence. Photo AFP.

It seems to shadow him more effectively than an on-field opponent tasked to follow his every move.

Detractors have criticised him heavily for years over a lack of desire and commitment on the field despite being more than happy to bank a handsome pay check each week from his employers Arsenal.

Controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was best man at his wedding earlier this year. Shortly after he was ambushed by armed robbers in broad day light in London, although it must be stressed he was very much the victim on that occasion.

This week has been another tumultuous one for the German. He was booed off the field by certain sections of the Emirates crowd during the trouncing by Manchester City last Sunday (Dec 15).

That disdain may have been due to yet another ineffective on-field display or the fact that, when substituted with his team trailing 0-3, he decided to take a slow, casual stroll towards the touchline instead of an urgent exit.

Regardless, it riled the home support who let their angst show. He responded by rolling up his gloves and kicking them towards the bench (the only shot he made on target all day, critics quipped) before slumping sullenly into a clear sulk.

China backlash

It was the climax to what had been quite a week for Ozil.

Two days earlier, a broader controversy occurred when he posted on social media to his millions of followers his views on the persecution of the Uighur community in China, condemning his fellow Muslims for their silence on the issue.

"Korans are being burnt... Mosques are being shut down... Muslim schools are being banned... Religious scholars are being killed one by one... Brothers are forcefully being sent to camps," Ozil commented in Turkish.

The Chinese government is accused of committing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang in the country’s north west. United Nations experts have described the region as a “no-rights zone” where Uighurs are “treated as enemies of the state based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.”

Recently, leaked government documents added to the body of evidence about the vast system of internment camps, which are holding more than a million Uighurs and Turkic Muslims. It is the largest detention of an ethno-religious minority since the second world war.

Ozil is a Muslim who won the World Cup with the German national team before quitting international football amid claims of racism and disrespect over his Turkish heritage.

His post drew an angry response from Chinese state-controlled media and social media platforms.

The Chinese Football Association issued a statement that the Arsenal star had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” despite censoring the content of the post so readers didn’t know why their feelings had been hurt.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV cancelled live coverage of Arsenal’s game against Manchester City, deciding instead to show a replay of north London rival Tottenham’s victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers from earlier that day.

US-listed Chinese internet company NetEase deleted Ozil from Chinese versions of the popular Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) mobile game.

Even the Chinese foreign ministry stepped in and said the footballer had been “blindfolded by fake news.”

Double standards?

Many have applauded Ozil for using his position of fame and influence to speak out about the Uighur’s plight, helping to raise awareness of one of the worst human rights atrocities of the modern era.

His club, however, are not one of those.

Arsenal immediately distanced themselves from the player, no doubt placing their commercial interests ahead of any potential political or human rights quarrel.

They will have witnessed the recent fallout involving NBA team the Houston Rockets whose General Manager Daryl Morey had tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong. The repercussions were severe as a storm between China and the NBA ensued.

Arsenal took to Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” it read. “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”

It seems strange then that the very same club took no stance when, only a day previous, defender Hector Bellerin spoke out via an expletive tweet urging people to vote against the Conservative party and Boris Johnson in the recent UK general election.

Maybe Arsenal don’t see as much financial gain in the UK post Brexit as they do in the ‘lucrative’ Chinese market?

There is also Arsenal’s sponsorship by the Rwandan government which certainly has political connections.

It certainly appears they threw Ozil under the bus.

Football, the global game

Events took another turn on Tuesday (Dec 17) when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped in to share his views.

"China's Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor @MesutOzil1088 and @Arsenal's games all season long, but the truth will prevail," Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

"The CCP can't hide its gross #HumanRights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world," he said.

It’s been said many times but perhaps football, or “soccer” as Pompeo would label it, really is the global game.

Twitter aficionado, President Donald Trump, has yet to weigh in with his views.

Irrespective of opinion or political bias, for a sports star to so rattle the world’s number two superpower then receive direct endorsement from it’s first speaks volumes as to how sport can transcend its boundaries and shine a light on issues that are truly more important than a game.

Football with a conscience

Footballs clubs in England now have strong anti-discrimination policies and zero-tolerance approaches to racism by supporters. Commercial interests should not absolve clubs of social responsibilities and many acknowledge this.

Liverpool are competing in Qatar this week in Fifa’s Club World Cup. While acknowledging sensitivities they still managed to produce a carefully diplomatic, yet forthright, statement in supporting improved conditions for migrant workers labouring in the Gulf, long a contentious subject.

FC Cologne of the German Bundesliga this week cancelled plans to build a football academy in Shenyang, north-eastern China, citing a re-evaluation of "resources and priorities" behind the move.

However, Stefan Mueller-Roemer, a former club president and now head of the fan council, told local newspaper Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger that "human rights are massively disrespected in China...a total surveillance state is being built there….and as a non-profit organization that is socially committed, we cannot support such a totalitarian and brutal dictatorship.”

Interestingly, this was preceded by one of the leading FC Cologne ultra groups calling for the club to negate any existing or upcoming commercial deals with China stating “human rights and freedom outweigh all yuan in the world.”

They also pointed to the perceived injustice of FIFA fining the Hong Kong Football Association when fans turned their back as the Chinese national anthem was played during a World Cup qualifier in October.

A game of two halves

For all the moral victories, however, we are left with many lingering questions and doubts about the sport’s relation with ethics and morality.

Manchester City’s many connections to the United Arab Emirates have long been queried. Barcelona’s sponsorship from Qatar Airways raised eyebrows far and wide. 10 current Premier League clubs have gambling company logos emblazoned across their shirts. And countless clubs across Europe’s top leagues have China backed ownership and mega-sponsorship agreements in place.

Just a handful of examples where commercial profitability seems to over shadow morality.

Sports stars as new age spokesmen?

Yes, football is just a game but the protagonists are no longer merely players. They are global superstars who, mainly thanks to social media, have a strong voice, extensive audience reach and a unique opportunity to engage and influence, the likes of which today’s politicians could only dream of.

As many of the these politicians turn a blind eye to the alleged atrocities being committed in Xinjiang, Ozil has leveraged his position to raise awareness on a subject that is dear to him and should not be castigated for doing so, despite the fallout and controversy.

The seed is set and the fallout will continue. Maybe for Ozil its now time to just bunker down, keep a low profile and focus on lending some much needed support to help lift his team this weekend against Everton. Let his feet do the talking. Some say that in itself would be a controversy.


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