PR pros react to Arsenal and Mesut Ozil: 'Player and club lack consistency'

Governments rarely accuse footballers of peddling 'fake news', but when Arsenal's Mesut Özil spoke out on a human rights issue in a country where his club has significant commercial interests this week, he was 'thrown under the bus'.

Ozil played for Arsenal against Man City on Sunday (15 December) – a game that was dropped by China's state broadcaster (©GettyImages)
Ozil played for Arsenal against Man City on Sunday (15 December) – a game that was dropped by China's state broadcaster (©GettyImages)

Özil, a Muslim, called Uighurs "warriors who resist persecution" and criticised China and the silence of Muslims on social media.

Rights groups and the media have reported that around a million people – mostly from the Muslim Uighur community – are thought to have been detained without trial in high-security prison camps.

China has consistently denied mistreating Uighur Muslims in the country and says they are being educated in "vocational training centres" to combat violent religious extremism. China’s foreign ministry spokesman said Ozil had been "deceived by fake news".

Arsenal fans in the country have since been filmed burning the club’s shirts, and Chinese TV stations have said they will boycott news about the player and even games involving Arsenal.

The club distanced itself from the comments in a statement on its Weibo channel in China, which said: "Following social media messages from Mesut Özil, Arsenal Football Club must make it clear that these are Mesut’s personal views. Arsenal is always apolitical as an organisation. We will not be commenting further on the matter."

Tim Knight, director at PLMR, said this case demonstrates how the boardroom is more important than the dressing room at Arsenal.

"On the pitch, the team is in crisis – and, as the best-paid player, Özil is shouldering a lot of the blame for this. Being hung out to dry by the club’s leadership will only add to this sense of disorder, however, and sets a challenging precedent for Arsenal," he said.

"It was silent when alleged war criminal President Erdogan was best man at Özil's wedding. Will the club now comment when any player makes a ‘controversial statement’? Or does it only intervene when its commercial interests are compromised by a player’s words or actions?"

Football club or entertainment brand?

Mischief managing director Greg Jones is a "long-suffering" Arsenal supporter. He said it made the club look like hypocrites after they ignored a tweet by Hector Bellerin criticising PM Boris Johnson just a few days earlier.

"I feel disappointed by the club’s reaction to Özil's stance on China’s Uighur persecution, but not entirely surprised," he said. "They want to protect their club’s commercial interests in China, but it's disappointing that they have to throw one of their players under the bus to do so.

"Its unsurprising that Arsenal wants to move on from this whole affair, but disappointing that it isn’t prepared to flex its considerable influence to affect meaningful change – and not just make money.

"For me, this incident is symbolic of the movement of Arsenal from a football club to an entertainment brand, where the players mean less than the profits."

Frank chairman and founder Graham Goodkind, who describes himself as a "die-hard" Arsenal fan, thought the player lacked consistency, as he has also been vocal in his support for President Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.

"I think it’s fine for individual players to take a stance on issues they feel strongly about. Clearly they are serious influencers in their own right these days and if they want to use their profile to opine about something then that’s their prerogative," Goodkind said.

"But it is not incumbent on a player’s club to follow suit, in this case Arsenal clearly has not, and therefore don’t think there will be any lasting damage to the club’s brand."

Truth to power

Chris Whitehouse, founder at The Whitehouse Consultancy, disagreed and backed Özil's stance. As a political adviser to an organisation called Stand With Hong Kong, he said: "Özil spoke truth to power. If his club doesn’t defend his right to do so, then Arsenal are implicitly tarnished by the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the brutal tyranny that is the Chinese communist party.

"The economic power of China is clearly being deployed to corrupt British society: everything from our politics, to our universities, to our exporters and now our national sport are being undermined in a way that is fundamentally un-British and corrupts the principles of free speech that have underpinned our democratic society for centuries."

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