Just like politics, the world of football has also joined the field where controversies fetch higher scores than the actual goals on the playground. One of the worst victims of this politicization of soccer, in my opinion, are the football players who want to make their independent views about any national or international affairs public. A single statement made by them creates ripples in the political spheres. The latest to enter the world of controversies and its repercussions is Mesut Özil, a talented player who plays for Arsenal. His only fault (or a crime in the eyes of Chinese authorities) was that he used social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram to candidly express his views about the political detention of the members of a minority group called Uyghur Turks consisting of Turkish Muslims (Smith, 2019). He urged the Muslims living across the world to unite and to raise the voice against the injustice being done to the members of Uyghurs. But his views did not go down well with the Chinese government, known for crushing dissent. Soon, a backlash due to his noble views struck him hard. He was not only blacklisted from the media coverage, but an online forum was specially created to tarnish his name. He seemed to have learned a lesson that China is not only ahead of other countries in manufacturing goods but also a leader in launching a vilification campaign, targeting those who question or oppose their actions.
In response to Özil’s appeal for affirmative action, many of his Chinese fans vented their anger by burning his jerseys and asked him to quit for his so-called “anti-Chinese” sentiments (Kuo, 2019). However, what they failed to realize was that his views were not directed at Chinese people but a specific action of the Chinese government that he found oppressive. Following this strong reaction, his club Arsenal distanced itself from this whole episode, stating that the views expressed by him were personal and the same had nothing to do with his professional association with the club. However, the club could not afford to part ways with a talented player like Özil, for his contribution to the team’s performance has always been crucial and decisive. Moreover, the club paid a hefty amount to acquire him from Real Madrid. Obviously, the club was not in the position to let an expensive player like him go for such political controversy. Further, after this nasty episode, there is a general opinion that he should concentrate on his game and not take undue interest in what is happening in other parts of the world.
Unfortunately, such occurrences aren’t only limited to certain countries and specific sports. An American, American football player, Colin Kaepernick was also involved in a political debate. He courted controversy in 2016 when he refused to stand up during the national anthem, in protest against the killing of Black people in America and no strict action being taken against offenders (Oluo, 2016). This action evoked a sharp reaction from fellow Americans, including President Trump, who branded it as an anti-nationalist act. His jersey became the soft target of people’s anger with many burning it as a mark of protest. Even Nike, the company that hired him as a brand ambassador faced the financial heat of the public backlash. The company’s shares fell, and it met with criticism for seeking Kaepernick’s endorsement. Subsequently, there was a strong opinion that he might be right in standing up for a great cause by not standing up but, both the time and the place wasn’t right.
Politics has the dubious distinction of spoiling the sphere where it manages to enter. The presence of social media and its amazing ability to disseminate information across the world in no time add fuel to fire. Therefore, all players despite which sport they are playing or which country they are from should play safe and not let their personal opinions get misinterpreted. In the case of Özil, he already he had another moment when he was criticized by fans from all around the world for posing in a photograph with the controversial political leader of Turkey, Erdogan.
We have two different players from two different sports playing in two different countries. Although I am not a huge fan of American football, but am a huge fan of football, looking at Kaepernick’s case allows us to draw a simple conclusion that I want to reach for Özil, and in general for all football players and in some sense for all athletes. Football is a game which is only nice when played on the pitch. Every individual has a different perception and understanding of beliefs. When players with influence and popularity are misunderstood or go against a popular belief, the consequences can be disastrous. I believe that such influential figures should try to avoid getting into politics as much as they can, as what they try to mean might not be the same as what is understood.
Kuo, L. (16 December, 2019). Mesut Özil row: China’s Arsenal fans burn shirts in anger at Xinjiang post. The Guardian.
Oluo, I. (2016, August 29). Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is fundamentally American. The Guardian. April 4, 2020, from
Smith, R. (21 December, 2019). Soccer is politics, whether it likes it or not. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/21/sports/soccer/mesut-ozil-rory-smith-newsletter.html
It is always crazy to me to see how quickly an athlete’s name can be tarnished and how easily they are blacklisted for standing against injustices in society. Unfortunately for athletes it seems the only way to hold onto their success is to be seen and not heard. We constantly see this in America as well, as Megan Rapinoe’s solidarity with Kaepernick by taking a knee during one national anthem was not received well and the USSF mandated that all their players stand for the national anthem afterwards. It is always mind blowing to me how people do not expect athletes to be multifaceted individuals with opinions on the injustices around them when they are also people with thoughts and emotions just like us. It is disappointing that they must stay silent for the livelihood of their careers because they have such a unique platform that could really help promote change in the lives of others.