The Erasure of Mesut Özil

LONDON — Everything started with a tweet. Mesut Özil knew the risks, in December last year, when he decided to offer a startling, public denunciation both of China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority in the region of Xinjiang, and the complicit silence of the international community.

Friends and advisers had warned Özil, the Arsenal midfielder, that there would be consequences. He would have to write off China as a market. His six million followers on Weibo, the country’s largest social network, would disappear. His fan club there — with as many as 50,000 signed-up members — would go, too. He would never play in China. He might become too toxic even for any club with Chinese owners, or sponsors eager to do business there.

Özil knew this was not fearmongering. He was aware of China’s furious response — both institutionally and organically — to a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the N.B.A.’s Houston Rockets, only a few weeks earlier. Yet Özil was adamant. He had been growing increasingly outraged by the situation in Xinjiang for months, watching documentaries, consuming news reports. He believed it was his duty, he told his advisers, not so much to highlight the issue but to pressure Muslim-majority nations — including Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had served as best man at Özil’s wedding — to intercede.

And so he pressed send.

How much of what followed can be traced back to that tweet is contested. Özil is convinced that is the moment everything changed. Arsenal is just as adamant that it is not. There is no easy, neat way of bridging the divide between those perspectives. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps neither is. Neither Özil nor Arsenal was willing to discuss their differences on the record.

The outcome, regardless, is the same. A few days after Özil went public, the Premier League’s two broadcast partners in China, CCTV and PP Sports, refused to air an Arsenal match. When the latter did deign to show Arsenal again, its commentators refused to say Özil’s name.

His avatar was removed from video games. Searching the internet for his name in China brought up error messages. (It was reported his Weibo account was disabled, though that was not true.) Very deliberately, though, and seemingly at the behest of an authoritarian government, Mesut Özil was being erased.

If it felt, at the time, as if that was as bad as it would get, it was not. As it turned out, Özil’s disappearing was just beginning.

In Turkey, supporters of China’s Uighur minority were thrilled to have Özil’s support. The Chinese government was furious, and not just at the player.Credit...Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In hindsight, Arsenal’s reaction to Özil’s decision to speak out was — at least — inconsistent. Publicly, the club moved quickly to distance itself from his comments. Privately, it considered punishing him.

His tweet, and a simultaneous Instagram post to his more than 20 million followers on that service, had caused considerable problems — not just at Arsenal, but also for the Premier League. China, after all, was its largest foreign broadcast partner, and its biggest foreign market, and the league could not afford — even in a pre-Covid-19 world — to have its games blacked out, to have its sponsors and its fans close their wallets.

“In China, a lot of the audience are not aware of the nature of the relationship between an association, a league and a player in foreign countries,” said Zhe Ji, the director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company that works in China for both the Premier League and a number of its teams. “They see in China the football association is in full control of the league, which is in control of the player. It puts teams, leagues and individuals in an awkward position. There is a cultural confusion.”

Özil’s supporters once included his manager, Mikel Arteta, a former teammate. But last week Arteta dropped him from the team’s roster. “It’s nothing related to anything,\" he said. “It’s my decision.”Credit...John Sibley/Action Images, via Reuters

Conscious of that, Arsenal executives urged Özil to avoid political statements, or at least to ensure he avoided any association with the club if he continued to make them. When the club sent out its merchandising celebrating Chinese New Year, it made sure to remove Özil from any of the materials.

Eager to avoid the kind of public dispute that had imperiled the N.B.A.’s billion-dollar business relationship with China, the Premier League did its best to stay above the fray. But the league and its clubs seem to pick and choose their interventions. A few months after Özil’s tweet, players representing the Premier League’s 20 clubs — Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin was a leading advocate — informed the league that they would begin purposeful displays of support for the Black Lives Matter movement during games. The league quickly acquiesced to its players’ political awakening.

And last week, after Arsenal’s captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, tweeted in support of protests against police violence in Africa, the club issued its own statement. “To our Nigerian fans,” it began. “We see you. We hear you. We feel you.”

“It is becoming increasingly important that you have a point of view on this stuff,” said Tim Crow, a sponsorship consultant. “If you don’t, sooner or later the spotlight will turn on you, and people will ask questions about your values.”

Özil’s mistake, then, appears to be less that he had made a political statement and more that he had picked the wrong issue.

By the time the Premier League was discussing Black Lives Matter in the summer, of course, the world had changed. The coronavirus had forced soccer into a three-month hiatus, and Arsenal, like every other club, was coming to terms with the financial ramifications. Soon a new discussion began at Arsenal, about whether the team’s well-paid players should accept salary cuts. And almost immediately Özil’s stance on that issue, too, was widening the chasm between him and his club.

Arsenal hasn’t played Özil since the summer, when he refused to accept a pay cut.Credit...Andrew Matthews/Reuters

Even after his tweet about China, Özil played a reasonably prominent role for Arsenal in the first few months of 2020. Mikel Arteta, the club’s new coach, had insisted in his interview for the job that he wanted to work with Özil, a former teammate, to see if he could coax the club’s highest-paid player back to his best.

That relationship seems to have foundered as the club pressed its players to surrender some of their salaries to ease Arsenal’s cash crunch. The talks lasted for six weeks, and by late April the majority had fallen in line.

Özil, though, still had questions. He had asked Arsenal’s senior leadership for detailed answers on what the savings would be used for, whether the club’s owner would also be contributing, and whether the team could assure him it would use the money to protect its nonplaying staff.

He did not feel those issues were satisfactorily addressed (though the club does). After a final Zoom call, in which Arteta urged his players to “do the right thing,” Özil remained unmoved.

In June, the 12.5 percent wage cut was made official, and the players were presented with paperwork backdating the changes to April. Most signed immediately. Half a dozen or so lingered. Özil stood firm. Again, he knew the risk: that he might be ostracized by the club, that it might effectively end his career at Arsenal by refusing. It made no difference.

Özil has not played for Arsenal since. In August, two months after winning the wage concessions from its players, the club — citing the continuing financial impact of the pandemic — announced that it had parted company with 55 staff members. Özil took a particular interest in one of them.

Özil with Gunnersaurus, the mascot whose salary he tried to save after it was eliminated in a recent round of pandemic cost-cutting.Credit...Eddie Keogh/Reuters

There is, perhaps, no better indication of just how all-encompassing the distrust between Özil and Arsenal has become than the fact that, along with his political activism and his refusal to accept a pay cut, at least part of the tension between the parties relates to an argument over a dinosaur.

Earlier this month, it emerged that Arsenal had parted company with Jerry Quy, a lifelong fan who has spent the last 27 years dressing up as an oversize green dinosaur (possibly; his species is unclear) standing on the sideline during games. Quy is the human behind Gunnersaurus, Arsenal’s slightly ironically beloved mascot.

His dismissal was, to put it mildly, a public-relations disaster. Özil, immediately, seized on it, volunteering to pay Quy’s salary until fans were permitted to return to English stadiums and Gunnersaurus could return. The club was furious.

It felt, from the outside, as if Özil was trolling Arsenal. It is certainly possible that he was. It was just as clear that for good or (mostly) ill, player and club were inextricably bound together.

The club had tried to sell Özil in the summer of 2018 and in the summer of 2019, and more recently it had been negotiating with him over buying out most of the remainder of his contract.

Özil, though, was unwilling to budge. Why that might be — again — is a matter of debate. Some at the club believe that, newly married and with an infant daughter, he feels settled in London and does not want to move. Many fans assume he is simply happy to collect his multimillion-dollar salary until his contract expires next year, content to be paid not to play soccer.

Together with the international incident his tweet provoked, and coupled with the news media whispers — fiercely denied by those close to him, and never publicly stated by the club — that his attitude is lax and his inspiration gone, Özil seems to have developed a reputation. Soccer as a whole seems to have decided that the trouble he brings outweighs his talent.

For months, a World Cup-winning playmaker has been available at a heavy discount. And yet nobody, certainly in Europe, has been willing to take him on.

Özil still turns up for practices at Arsenal but now cannot play: The club did not register him as a player for the current Premier League season.Credit...John Sibley/Reuters

Özil, 32, insists it is his “love” for Arsenal that keeps him there. He had opportunities to leave over the course of this summer, according to a soccer executive with knowledge of the offers, but none that appealed. The size of his salary — and perhaps his reputation as troublesome — severely limits his options, even as Arsenal is so keen to move him on that it is prepared to pay two-thirds of his contract to make it happen.

It was only in the last week that the reality of his situation set in. He had already been left out of Arsenal’s squad for this season’s Europa League — he live-tweeted its game against Rapid Vienna on Thursday night from home — when he was told he would not be in the list for the Premier League campaign, either.

With the transfer window closed until January, it is, now, too late for him to leave. Until then, at the earliest, he finds himself in soccer exile: one of his own making, of his club’s making, one that there does not seem to have a way out.

He believes it started with the tweet. Arsenal disputes that. Wherever it began, this is where it has led: 10 months later, Mesut Özil has, effectively, been erased.

Claire Fu contributed reporting from Beijing.

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