Benedict Spence, The Independent
It was only a matter of time before the cosy relationship between the Premier League and the Chinese state was tested. Arsenal’s midfielder Mesut Ozil has provided that test, taking to Instagram to criticise China for its treatment of its Uigher Muslim population in Xinxiang.
Ozil, who has clashed with fellow players in his native Germany over what their attitudes towards ethnic minorities, referred to Uighers as “warriors” facing “persecution”, and criticised not only China for its policies, but Muslim countries for their inaction.
In response, China accused Ozil of having fallen prey to “fake news”. Chinese fans are reported to have burned Ozil shirts. Chinese state TV pulled Arsenal’s latest match.
The treatment of Muslims, in China and elsewhere, was likely to become contentious sooner or later for this generation of footballers. The Premier League is currently home to some of the world’s most prolific Muslim sports stars, including Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez. And given the recent protests in Hong Kong, there are plenty of reasons footballers might vent their political frustrations in China’s direction.
Sport has always been a vehicle for political causes. One need only go to a Liverpool match to see (and hear) the local views on Jeremy Corbyn. Across the pond, athletes from footballer Megan Rapinoe to NFL star Colin Kaepernick have used their platforms to speak out politically.
It would be easy for a sceptic to put Ozil in league with Kaepernick and Rapinoe for reasons beyond their shared politicisation. What all three also have in common is that they have become politically very active in the twilight of their careers. Police violence in the US was hardly a new phenomenon when Kaepernik first knelt during the national anthem; what was new, however, was that Kaepernick had recently dropped down the pecking order of the San Francisco 49ers, and was set to be released. Rapinoe has just played what will likely be her last international tournament; Ozil is on the fringes of Arsenal.
What this suggests is that athletes are less likely to take a political stand at the peak of their sporting careers in case it hurts their value. Yet particularly in the case of football, this political spirit is a continuation of a tradition that has made the sport what it is today – and the Premier League should not clamp down on it.
Liverpool, for example, would not be the club it is were it not for the community spirit cultivated by the deep economic and social trauma the city experienced after the Second World War; the same is true of Manchester United and many other English clubs. Similarly, Barcelona would not be half as great had it not been a home for Catalan separatism and resistance to Francoist fascism.
Arsenal has already distanced itself from Ozil’s comments, stating its policy was “not to involve itself in politics”. Yet the club would do well to look at the example of Daryl Morey. Earlier this year, the general manager of NBA team the Houston Rockets tweeted support for Hong Kong protestors, prompting fierce backlash from China. What followed was a grossly unedifying spectacle, in which key NBA figures, including LeBron James, criticised Morey, suggesting he was “not educated” about the situation in Hong Kong.
In the end, this kowtowing was a lose-lose situation: profits were badly hit, and domestic audiences disappointed in the NBA’s unprincipled behaviour (in fact, the domestic reputational damage may have cost the NBA far more than missed opportunities in the Far East).
The Chinese football market is worth in excess of £10 million per season. Yet the Premier League should be wary of ending up on the wrong side of history for the sake of a quick buck. If China is prepared to boycott the league when players speak their minds, it must be made clear that the loss is China’s.
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