Is politics truly offside in football?

Recently, Mesut Ozil of Arsenal has come under fire for voicing his support for Uighur Muslims in China whom he likened to “warriors who resist persecution”. Arsenal swiftly tried to distance itself from Ozil in a bid to safeguard relations with China, a country where the club has numerous commercial interests.

For the purposes of this article, what should be interrogated is the act of voicing out an opinion on a sensitive matter when one is attached to an organisation, in this case a football club.

What are the stakes involved?

The question of the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang and counter-narratives to this persecution have already been presented extensively elsewhere.

First, who is Mesut Ozil in terms of his background? He is a third-generation Turkish-German. Some sources say his ancestors are ethnic Turks while others say they are ethnic Kurds.

Ozil is a practising Muslim and often recites from the Quran before football matches, as do fellow Muslim footballers such as Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah of Liverpool. He is also not shy about the difficulties of being a Muslim and a footballer during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Because of the need to stay at peak fitness, fasting all thirty days isn’t easy and, sometimes, just not possible.

Providing a brief background can provide some context for Ozil’s voicing out against the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang. However, Ozil’s religion cannot be seen to be the only reason explaining his frustration. After all, as he rightly pointed out, newspapers in the West do report on the Uighur issue.

On this note, he also criticised the silence of Muslims to the plight of the Uighur Muslims, saying that “what will be remembered years later would not be the torture by the tyrants but the silence of their Muslim brothers.”

Malaysian reactions to his comments have been discouraging and intentionally hurtful, many of which do not address the role of sports athletes in political discourse.

One netizen confidently branded him a Muslim fanatic who will support suicide bombers. This person also advised Arsenal to send him to Saudi Arabia so that he can pray there as much as he wants.

Mercifully, another netizen did advise him not to mix religion and politics with sports.

At the surface level, the belief that religion and politics should not be mixed with football is a noble one. Football is a game that 50,000 fans want to watch at a stadium and art that they want to witness; one cannot forget players such as Maradona in 1986 literally running past the whole of England to score a goal to send Argentina to the semi-finals of the World Cup and eventually win the tournament.

Nobody wants to think of politics when they are cheering on their favourite team. Football is supposed to be simple, not mired by political chicanery.

Sport is meant to be a break from our daily lives, while politics, with the help of the news, reminds us of the grim realities of human suffering and daily life.

However, the reality and the normative can never be one. Football and politics don’t necessarily mix because of the extra attention footballers garner. It is a rule every footballer knows or should know.

The question is what should footballers do with the knowledge that they are individuals who garner a lot of public attention?

In Ozil’s case, was his statement terribly inflammatory? Or was he saying what has always been said?

We would do well to distinguish between an act and an intention. Regarding the former, I doubt Ozil’s intention was to rouse separatist sentiment in Xinjiang, or better yet, become a freedom fighter himself.

In terms of the act, sure he could have been speaking as a Muslim who shares similar roots with the people living in Xinjiang. He could also have been speaking as someone who is socially conscious like many of us.

Does Arsenal need to vocally come out in support of Ozil’s opinions? Not necessarily.

Does distancing themselves from Ozil say anything about their own position on what is happening in Xinjiang? No, and we don’t actually know what the club’s position is.

My point is that saying football and politics should not be mixed is ill-informed if such a mixture is not calling for a negative course of action.

In other cases, mixing football with politics or religion constitutes a positive course of action. The number of football players and clubs who take a no-nonsense attitude against racism is testament to this.

Football doesn’t solve racism, but it is a significant platform to raise awareness of racism. This awareness can even start from as young as six when kids enter football academies and societies.

We shouldn’t be selective and say football and politics should only mix for good social causes but footballers should keep quiet if they have an opinion that some people will not like even if it does not advocate for social disharmony.

Rather, football and politics, when mixed together, should be dealt with delicately. Ozil’s statement is just an opinion that does not advocate for any sort of violence or discord.

Syed Imad Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.