BY DAVID ONJILI
The evolution of professional football has undergone many stages. There was an era when clubs had the ultimate say. Players would die to feature for certain clubs and fans had undying allegiance to them. Lately, however, this has changed.
More and more fans especially the young have turned their allegiance from clubs to individual players. Arsene Wenger, retired Arsenal FC manager once admitted that he envisions a future where the next generation of soccer fans would pledge more allegiance to players than clubs. This meant that their loyalty to players would make them support different clubs as long as their favorite player moves there.
Mesut Ozil, the 32-year-old German born with Turkish roots who plays for Arsenal FC and the German national team as an attacking midfielder is a player who needs no introduction to football fans – a World Cup winner with Germany, a boy whose prodigious football talent has mesmerized the world. His vision and silk play are a joy to watch but lately, he is making most of the headlines for non-footballing reasons. Not to mention that he is on £350, 000 (Sh49.2m) in weekly wages at the club, making him one of the highest earning stars in the Premier League.
It all began quietly when he insinuated to racism in the Germany national soccer team. Alleging that he was unfairly singled out for the dismal performance of the team in Russia 2018 because of his Turkish roots. A huge blight to the team, especially that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German football association, DFB, had always used him as a poster boy for integration due to his Turkish roots. Then came the bombshell in December last year via a tweet to his 20 million plus followers on the social media platform.
Despite several warnings by his close aides not to speak about it publicly as has been revealed by various journalists, to him, this was a moral issue, and that the commercial ramifications would matter the least to him. Ozil went ahead and spoke up for the Uighur Muslims in China. Calling out the communist regime of Xi Jinping in China. The retaliation was immediate from China. Ozil’s fan club in China with more than 50,000 members was banned, almost declared illegal. On the week of the tweet, Arsenal’s game against Manchester City was not televised
by China’s state broadcasters.
Immediately, Arsenal FC released a statement distancing themselves from Ozil and his remarks. Many Arsenal fans were gutted, here was a player standing up against mistreatment of minorities but now he was being portrayed as the bad one. The league association never stepped in to help. It was clear to soccer lovers and the world that the Chinese market and billions were more important compared to what was right.
The irony of it all is that the league would participate in the Black Lives Matter protests by allowing players to take a knee before games once football resumed due to the unforeseen coronavirus pandemic break. The question that lingered in the minds of many soccer fans is, had Ozil chosen the right message but went against the wrong target?
The Chinese market is huge and runs into billions, their billionaires are investing into world football. And, European clubs, Arsenal FC not left behind, are keen on expanding and growing their market share in China. Merchandise sales, commercial pre-season games in China and the ability to have the billion plus Chinese market watch their games are all lucrative.
In October 2020, Gabonese and Arsenal FC striker, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang tweeted about the police brutality on protestors in Nigeria, and the killings in Congo. Immediately, his club also tweeted in solidarity with the Nigerian citizens and fans – quite a contrast in reaction to that of Ozil. This double standard is what many do not understand. Why isOzil’s case is treated differently. Why did the club stand by Aubameyang and distance themselves from Ozil?
Is it because the Chinese market cannot be equated in financial terms to the Nigerian? Do these clubs really have a moral stand or it is about protecting their image and market share? Let it be known that Ozil himself may not be a straightforward athlete. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey is his best friend and even attended his wedding. A man whose regime has its own history of human rights violations, and one whom Ozil openly flaunts as a friend. But don’t we also see hypocrisy in the way that clubs are acting? Some of these soccer club owners are dubious individuals whose companies have been sited to human rights violations at some point.
For now, Arsenal FC fans are split down the middle with the treatment of Ozil. One faction believes that he is being treated unfairly by the club. That he should be judged for his footballing talent. The club on the other hand have never said that his omission from both the Premier League and Europa League 25man squad list has nothing to do with his vocal stand on societal issues.
One thing though, football is slowly but steadily losing its moral stand and replacing it with love and loyalty for money. Take Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager. He openly supports the separation of Catalonia from Spain and openly speaks on matters that affect Catalonia due to his ties with Barcelona. Yet, he embraces the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi who owns his current club. A family accused of several human rights violations.
Has football lost its soul? Yes, if you ask me. FIFA and many federations from Italy, Spain to England have never done enough to fight vices like racism. It is individual players like Samuel Eto’o who have been bold against such vices. How many well-known racist fans have ever been arrested and prosecuted? Could this be a reason why a growing number of fans are pledging allegiance to individual players and not clubs?
Mesut Ozil may not be playing for Arsenal FC but he continues to earn his wages and polarizing the club’s fan base.