Football is an area where general members of the public and footballers explicitly interact with the social and political issues that are interwoven throughout the 21st century footballing landscape. Clubs and players are entities fans form emotionally attachments to, yet modern football clubs are also global businesses whose purpose is to maintain profits and please board members. Players are business assets who’s on and off the pitch value is extremely important for themselves and football clubs, but they are also individual people with their own beliefs about the social and political ongoings of the world. As a global business, football clubs and players have had a variety of connections and attitudes towards different socio-political movements. Examining how these movements and activism have been treated within the topography of football can give us key insights into the relationship between international companies and socio-political movements within wider frames of globalisation and capitalism.
On the 13th December 2019 Arsenal player Mesut Özil publicly declared his support for the Uighur Muslims detained in China via social media and called for more international action in response to this problem. Here a premier league footballer with a massive social media following has used their platform to bring light to a contemporary socio-political issue. Whilst some people would prefer that sportspeople and celebrities in general ‘stay in their lane’, the sensible and acute use of celebrities’ platforms have been an essential element in creating social change. For more information about the situation involving the Uighur Muslim’s in China seehttps://edicollectiveuom.com/blog-2/.
Özil’s public show of support for the situation of Uighur Muslims in China had serious repercussions for himself and his employer; multi-million pound international business Arsenal Football Club. Özil’s likeness was removed from the Chinese version of the PES football game and information about him in Chinese search engines was altered. China also responded by cancelling the scheduled broadcast of Arsenal’s following fixture against Manchester City in December 2019. This decision cost Arsenal money and threatened to cost Arsenal much more moneyin the futureas China is one of the most lucrative emerging markets for football clubs with sponsorship deals and TV rights. This is despite Arsenal’s attempts to detach themselves from Özil’s comments by claiming the club is apolitical and doesn’t involve itself in politics. Furthermore, Özil has been in and out of the Arsenal squad since these events including being completely excluded from the premier league squad this season. This appears to be an ongoing consequence of his political stance despite current Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta claiming Özil’s non-involvement is for ‘footballing reasons’. In this situation Arsenal Football club, a massive multi-national business was confronted with a social-political issue and sought to emphasise their ‘apolitical’ stance as the situation jeopardised profit margins. The relationship between Arsenal and socio-political activism is put into further context by the clubs interactions with social and political movements and events.
Whether you believe anyone or anything being politically neutral is a realistically achievable or desirable status is irrelevant to the fact that in the time after claiming to be apolitical Arsenal Football Club have been far from apolitical. In the run up to the 2019 general election Hector Bellerin, another Arsenal player, tweeted calling for young people to vote accompanied by the #FuckBoris. However despite the politically charged nature of this Bellerin’s tweet Arsenal did not feel the need to distance themselves from it despite their previous reluctance to get involved in politics. Clearly the club was not that committed to their political neutrality.
Furthermore, upon the restart of the premier league following the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 premier league clubs, including Arsenal, all agreed to wear shirts with the phrase Black Lives Matter on the back following the events surrounding George Floyd’s death in America. Additionally players since the restart have started each game by taking the knee as a show of support against racism. These are both clearly gestures intentionally postulating for social and political change yet Arsenal Football Club actively participated and supported them despite claiming to not involve itself in politics. Arsenal’s response and support of the worldwide social movement in 2020 that focused on institutional racism against black people and Arsenal’s lack of response to Hector Bellerin’s tweet asks questions about why Arsenal’s political stance in these incidents was so different to their stance at the time of Mesut Özil’s public support for the Uighur people. As with everything in football and the world the answer seems to revolve around money and shareholder profits. The resumption of the premier league of which agreeing to support the black lives matter movement was a crucial part of was economically essential for football clubs like Arsenal and Bellerin’s tweet was of little relevance to Arsenal’s finances. Yet Özil’s comments threatened the financial future and profitability of Arsenal football club so in this instance Arsenal separated themselves from a political movement that threatened to cost the club money.
The purpose of this blog is not to paint Arsenal, China or Özil as the heroes or villains of these events. The reasons behind Özil’s exclusion from Arsenals’ squad remain speculative and Özil himself is very closely connected to controversial authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, as well as being the best man at Özil’s wedding, has also been recently embroiled in the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Arsenal Football Club is just one example of a global business that involves itself in socio-political movementsincluding supporting many important causes and social movements such as the No Room For Racism initiative. Rather, the purpose is to point out the complex, or not so complex, relationship international businesses have with social movements and how economic factors influence these relationships. With the world in its current state where online data and preferences are monitored for big businesses financial exploitation it isimportant that we question and challenge why companies decide to support certain political movements, not just blindly support companies that get behind whatever social issues are trending. When these organisations’ moral compasses are directed by finances, it is important that social movements do not become objects manipulated by capitalism for monetary gain as allowing this to happen will inhibit the potential of these movements for sustainable successful and long-lasting social change.
Written by Fred Clare