Do footballers have a responsibility to talk to about political issues?
“East Turkestan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men. But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?”
The words of Mesut Ozil are seemingly less that of a footballer, and more that of a human outraged at another being’s collective suffering. The German/Turkish number 10 released the statement in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis against Uighurs in China, where the population of Muslims in the north-western region of Xinjiang have been persecuted by the state, with Ozil criticising both the regime itself and Muslim communities for failing to widely highlight the issue. An issue close to his heart as a practising Muslim himself, Ozil’s words have power, thanks to his high status in the world of sport and, thus, carry a threat. While his club, Arsenal, distanced themselves from the comments – more on that later – Ozil himself suffered for his honesty, with state-run Chinese broadcaster CCTV pulling coverage of his team from television as retaliation for his "false comments", and simultaneously removing most traces of the player from the internet and even revoking his appearance from popular football video games in the country.
Yet, there was controversy surrounding a surprisingly polarising act of deviance of human suffering. This isn’t the first instance of Ozil being involved in politics far beyond the realms of football, having previously been photographed with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a move that didn’t go down well considering the accusations of him and his regime ethnically-cleansing Kurds in Syria, dividing himself between his German and Turkish nationalities (what with Germany heavily opposing these ideals). The point is not whataboutery, however. Ozil’s decision to speak out on Chinese politics is something to be commended, regardless of previous problematic situations. With his level of power and influence across the world, the message he conveyed spread like wildfire – and if there are doubts about this threat, then question why Chinese media have made it their prerogative to shut him down at every turn. Ozil, and more importantly, footballers, have influence in the world, whether they are the most educated, forward-thinking lot or not. In both instances, Ozil created a wider discussion on issues regarding the Kurds and the Uighurs which opened the events to a far greater audience, if nothing else. Footballers have a position given to them that has a reach too good to simply use their millions of followers to banter about on Twitter. So, in such a world of chaos, turmoil and crisis, why don’t more footballers speak out like Ozil has? Unfortunately, this is a fairly straightforward answer.
Another example (and another Arsenal player coincidentally) came in the build-up to the UK General Election, as part-time heartthrob model and full-time footballer Hector Bellerin, spoke out about voting out the Tories to "change what the future can be", even deploying the hashtag #FuckBoris and certifying his legendary status thus further. Of course, spreading such a sided political message on social media brings with it a barrage of abuse, mutual agreement and more commonly, football Twitter retweeting him with hand clap emojis and the caption “pure class for Hector, this”. But more distressing is the dribbled-out phrase “stick to football”. This comment suggests anyone with a functioning brain and nuanced opinions is required to only stay within the realms of work-related discussion and never, ever stray into the paths of political discourse. Needless to say, such a remark is – and I mean this wholeheartedly – complete and utter bollocks. Bellerin felt his position in society as a figure with influence was important, and that to spread his message and encourage citizens to vote a particular way was justified and well-considered – and it was. The only depressing issue with his actions are not that he did them, but that more in his position don’t follow suit in speaking out about real-world issues. While Bellerin wasn’t shut down by UK media for his rejection of the ruling government, his message certainly divided opinions.
Football is fantastic – the greatest sport on Earth, bar none. But over the years, it’s created a world within itself that’s closed off as far more than a form of escapism, and instead has become closed off to the real world, to important discussions and all for the want of self-protection. "Stick to football" is a dangerous way of thinking, and should be discouraged – footballers have a platform, like celebrities (which they effectively are) and should use it to open discussions more frequently. The reasons why they don't are primarily financial and business orientated. When Ozil spoke out about China, Arsenal distanced themselves from his comments as a club, afraid of the repercussions. From a business viewpoint, this is sadly the way of the world, as China is a major player in the Asian football market, and with the Premier League branding reaching out worldwide more and more, year on year, to jeopardise an entire country’s viewing and paying market away from the club would be, admittedly, poor business. But while profit and gain dictate over morals and ethics in this manner, it is the responsibility of footballers to open discussions official bodies are too afraid to.
For proof of this working, look no further than Raheem Sterling’s condemnation of the British press and racism in football, as a man now largely viewed as a spearhead of anti-racism in football. That’s not to say that racism wasn’t viewed as bad until Sterling came along, but more that through his power and influence, the conversation has been accelerated into a place where we now have protocols and plans in place to tackle racism at matches better than we did before. It proves that political change is possible, be it small steps or a simple acknowledgement that something must improve. Ozil’s remarks about China have got people talking more about China’s suppression of Uighurs, Bellerin voicing his opinion likely encouraged others to go out and vote, and Sterling’s relentless reminding of racism in the game has brought football to a point where players are now encouraged to leave the field of play – as anyone in a workplace should – if they are being racially abused.
Of course, this must allow for the opposite – as much as footballers can spread ideas of hope and progression, it may also turnout to spread hatred (depending on political alliances). But while few footballers actually share their voice, it’s hard to know for sure. Given the benefit of the doubt and just examining the facts, that footballers have mass, cult-like followings, unmatched sporting power via social media and in the modern day that equals power. Now they just have to be brave enough to use it.