This past week, German soccer player Mesut Özil took to his social media accounts, specifically Twitter and Instagram, to speak out against the mistreatment of Uighurs in China. Özil’s club team, Arsenal, chose to not rally behind its teammate, to remind the public that the club will not take any political stance and will continue to disassociate itself from politics in general. The Uighurs are a Muslim minority living in the Northwest Xinjiang region of China. There are serious accusations that have been brought against the Chinese government in which they force the consumption of pork, the burning of the Quran, the closing down of mosques and lastly, forced sterilization.
In a recently leaked report, it states that there are currently 1 to 2 million Uighurs being held in various forced labor detention camps around the Xinjiang region. Mesut Özil is a practicing Muslim of Turkish ancestry who plays as a midfielder for the English club Arsenal Football Club, which is one of the biggest and most well-known football clubs all over the world.
This week in Özil’s social media posts, he called the Uighurs “warriors” and called out, not only the Chinese government, but Muslims across the globe who have yet to come to their aid. Özil went on to demand a global cry against the injustices happening to his fellow brothers and sisters in Islam. The club’s response shows the fear of angering not only the Chinese government, but the Chinese people as well. The Chinese government perpetuates the stereotypes that the Uighurs are terrorists, extremists, and are a danger to the general Chinese population. This propaganda is widely accepted by the general Chinese population and agrees with the measures that the government is taking.
On Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms, there was significant outrage over Özil’s comments. There was even a hashtag concerning the situation which was trending on the app. This media attention is terrifying for clubs like Arsenal. Asia is seen as a gold mine for big-time European soccer clubs. Many teams take preseason tours around Asia and make many stops in China to keep a positive presence in the country while also maintaining their popularity.
Teams also host many events such as, meet and greets, in the hopes of making many interactions with the public, turning them into Arsenal fans. The revenue that Asia can give clubs like Arsenal is too good to pass up. Shirt sales alone could give Arsenal millions upon millions of dollars, which is a huge boost that could help the club sign new players and keep them from sinking into debt.
The power of the Chinese populace is too strong for Arsenal to back, they felt as if they had to separate themselves from Özil in this case, in order to save face and keep their brand in a positive light. If the comments made by Özil stick with the Chinese population, Arsenal’s revenue could plummet and would take years to mend that relationship. I would not be surprised if, in the future, Arsenal made comments in order to distance themselves from Özil. We shall see what happens next, but one thing is for sure: the lure of the Chinese market is too big to ignore for these European club teams.