Arsenal’s reaction to Mesut Özil exposes the old lie that “sport and politics don’t mix”

The footballer condemned Chinese persecution of the Uighurs and was met with backlash from China and hypocrisy from his club.

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Sport has given us many ludicrous sentences over the years. “And the BBC sports personality of the year for 1971 is Princess Anne”; “And the BBC sports personality of the year for 2006 is Zara Phillips”, to name just two. But there are none more ludicrous than the timeless classic: “Sport and politics do not mix.”

Let’s take a moment to break it down. Sport is played by landmasses whose borders are defined by political bodies, by teams who come from environs defined by political bodies, or by individuals – generally representing landmasses – who have opinions, a brain and a conscience.

Many of the events in which they compete involve flags and anthems, many of the biggest events are staged at the behest of politicians, and many of the biggest stadiums incorporate special seating areas for political figures who welcome competitors and present prizes. Yup, “sport and politics do not mix”.

Likewise, Iraq playing the US in a football World Cup lacked both political undertones and overtones, Israel’s footballers spent years playing in the Oceania qualifying group because they were collecting air miles, and nation-states purchase sporting institutions for the simple love of the game. Yet more evidence that “sport and politics do not mix”.

It is, therefore, odd how frequently we are informed that “sport is an incredible force for good”. What kind of good could that possibly be? The kind of good that sees people from different cultures commune, perhaps? That allows people to understand that world better? Again, that undermines the mantra that “sport and politics do not mix”

Last week, Arsenal player Mesut Özil spoke out about China’s appalling treatment of the Uighur Muslims. On his Instagram account, he wrote:

“East Turkistan, 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?”

Shortly afterwards, his club responded with a message on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

“As a football club,” it said, “Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”. This, of course, made perfect sense, because as everyone knows, “sport and politics do not mix”.

Nevertheless, more than a million Uighurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government. A former detainee claimed inmates have been subjected to torture, medical experiments and gang rape, with others forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Meanwhile, around the country, mosques have been destroyed.

Özil is not alone. The UK is one of 23 counties to condemn China’s behaviour, sentiments shared by a raft of human rights organisations – but Arsenal, not so much.

This does of course, make perfect sense. A club whose home ground is sponsored by United Arab Emirates’ state-owned airline, whose shirts implore you to “Visit Rwanda” thanks to a deal with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, an avid fan and autocrat, and whose owner donated $1m to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”.

Since Özil made his point, his Chinese fan club has been closed, the Chinese foreign ministry has made a statement, and coverage of Arsenal’s weekend game was pulled by the Chinese state broadcaster. They too appear certain that “sport and politics do not mix”.

Footballers are often criticised for being oblivious or appearing remote, but we should support them when they demonstrate to the contrary.  Though remaining silent is no less a political act than speaking up – a decision to do nothing rather than something is still a decision – I am glad that Özil took the latter option, am grateful to him for educating me, and respect his desire to make a better world.

His club should be feeling that too – before asking itself whether football should be in such hoc to state wealth and rogue state wealth at that, given that “sport and politics do not mix”.