It was an hour into the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City when Freddie Ljungberg decided he had seen enough of Mesut Özil for one day, and the board went up to signal the replacement of Arsenal’s number 10 by the young midfielder Emile Smith Rowe.
Evidently unimpressed by the coach’s decision, Özil stalked slowly off the pitch, and you wondered if we were about to see a rerun of the Granit Xhaka drama from a few weeks ago.
But it sounded as though most of the Arsenal fans were beyond rage, beyond caring even, and Özil left the field to the sounds of mingled cheers and boos, all of them half-hearted. As he approached the bench he kicked his gloves away and left them for someone else to pick up later.
His performance had not been notably bad. It was just the usual Özil, his silky irrelevance merging seamlessly into the wider grand irrelevance of Arsenal, who are discovering that Unai Emery was a smaller part of the problem than they had hoped.
This is the club that gave Özil a new contract for £18 million a year in January 2018, apparently because they didn’t want to look weak by losing a star on a free transfer. The decision was itself a sign of weakness, and since then, looking weak has become the club speciality.
Emery could never figure out a meaningful role for Özil in the team and so Arsenal’s best-paid player played less than half of the total minutes in the Premier League last season, contributing five goals and two assists.
In the summer the club hierarchy and Emery apparently decided on a policy of freezing him out altogether, a plan Emery revealed in October before he promptly picked Özil for the next game.
Now the interim coach Ljungberg seems to be trying to reintegrate Özil fully into the team. None of this indicates that Arsenal have a clear idea of what they are trying to do.
On Friday Özil posted to his various social media channels the following impassioned message: “East Turkestan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, warriors 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 honourable Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, says, ‘If you cannot prevent persecution, expose it’.”
The post referred to the Chinese government repression of the Muslim Uighur minority in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where it is alleged that more than a million people have been detained in prison camps since 2014.
Criticising the Chinese government is not without its costs. Arsenal’s American owners would have been well aware of what happened in October, when Daryl Morey, general manager of NBA franchise the Houston Rockets, tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the Hong Kong protestors. NBA matches were pulled from Chinese TV for two weeks and the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, claimed that the Chinese government had demanded that Morey be fired. The financial damages to the NBA were, according to Silver, “fairly dramatic”.
A few hours after Ozil’s post, Arsenal published a statement on Sina Weibo, the Chinese analogue to Twitter, which did not appear on their Western social media channels or the club’s website: “Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement. The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” On Sunday, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV replaced live coverage of Arsenal v Man City with a recording of the earlier match between Wolves and Tottenham.
Arsenal’s claim that they do not involve themselves in politics is not strictly true. Every year, like all the other Premier League clubs, they wear a poppy on their shirt in the matches around Armistice Day. The poppy is essentially a signal of respect towards the British armed forces and wearing one is a political stance, just as James McClean or Nemanja Matic not wearing one is a political stance.
The notion that you could market yourself to the whole world and yet never offend anyone's sensibilities is a delusion
Every year Arsenal support the Rainbow Laces campaign against homophobia – and this stance has drawn furious criticism on their social media pages from fans in parts of the world where homophobia remains as respectable as it was in Britain until quite recently.
Yet Arsenal presumably would not withdraw their support for this campaign because some people were getting angry with them on the internet. When you decide to take a stand against homophobia you expect criticism from homophobes as part of the deal.
So why were Arsenal so quick to disassociate themselves from Özil’s comments in particular? They had not felt the need to comment on Hector Bellerin’s tweet last Thursday, urging people to vote in the UK election and adding the hashtag “#FuckBoris.”
Obviously, there is a lot of money at stake in the Premier League’s relationship with China. The current TV deal is worth $700 million over three years, making it the largest individual contract among the many overseas rights deals, and worth a little over 5 per cent of the league’s total revenues from TV. It works out at around $11 million per club per season, or half Özil’s annual salary.
The working assumption is that the value of these rights, plus associated sponsorship opportunities, will continue to increase, and at a faster rate than in other markets where the Premier League is a more established popular entertainment.
And yet the very fact that footballers like Özil and Bellerin are tweeting such outspoken political views shows the worthlessness of these assumptions about the future. The players are reflecting the anger and confusion that actually exists in the world.
These clubs would like the world to behave more like a global market in an economics textbook, where everyone went about paying TV subscriptions and buying merchandise and respecting intellectual property in a peaceful and orderly manner.
But that’s a kind of complacent end-of-history fantasy from the 1990s: the real world is uncertain, chaotic, unpredictable and violent.
The notion that you could promote and market yourself to the whole world and yet never offend anyone’s sensibilities is a delusion. Rather than rushing to distance themselves from their own players, Arsenal might be better off figuring out what it is that they actually stand for. Surely they must be getting tired of looking weak.