Why you should care
Because athletes like Ozil have become a proxy for geopolitical power struggles worldwide.
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
Something is always lost in translation when dealing with China. Take Mesut Özil, for example. The Arsenal soccer star’s name is difficult to transliterate into Chinese, which uses idiomatic characters in lieu of an alphabet. So while English broadcasters have called the crafty and opportunistic midfielder the “assist king,” Chinese fans and media folk have a different name: “The Little Wife.”
Male commentators have said it’s because of his timid playing style, not just linguistic differences. But there is another reason why the “Little Wife” is one of the biggest soccer icons in East Asia, reportedly earning an offer of more than $100 million to join the Chinese Super League in 2017. “Young Chinese females in particular see him as something of a sex symbol,” says Simon Chadwick, a University of Salford professor of sports enterprise with a special focus on Asia. “The reason we were able to ascertain is this wide-eyed innocence that he has. It’s his facial appearance they liked.”
The Chinese hardly see him as innocent now. This weekend, Özil, 31, posted a poem on Instagram decrying China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim population, which some human rights groups have called the largest incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust. That led to China, which doesn’t take kindly to being criticized by sports figures, responding by blacking out Arsenal games on state television. Fans reportedly burned Özil’s jersey, and while Arsenal released a statement claiming to be apolitical, reports suggest China will accept nothing but a full apology before resuming business with the Premier League squad.
The Premier League stands to make much more out of China than China does out of the Premier League.
Simon Chadwick, University of Salford
Perhaps knowingly, Özil has waded into a proxy war. “We are living amidst a global ideological battle between Western liberalism and Eastern authoritarianism. There are several flash points in this battle, and one of those is sports,” Chadwick adds.
Özil is no stranger to controversy. On the pitch, the midfielder is a genius (albeit one with critics). After featuring for German Bundesliga clubs, Özil was transferred to Real Madrid for 15 million euros. There, he starred while winning the Copa del Rey in his first season and helping Germany win the FIFA World Cup in 2014. The only player ever to lead Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League in assists, Özil’s opportunistic and technical playing style earned praise at every stop … while his lack of physicality has not.
Says Justin Salhani, a former footballer and sports writer who founded the Washington-based collective Guerrilla FC: “He’s not the hard-running, tackling passion player fans want, but he has technical and cerebral qualities I appreciate.”
Some argue that Özil is hardly cerebral off the field. His views can be conflicting at best. Yes, he was lauded for speaking out against racism, quitting the German national team in 2018 after saying his Turkish heritage was held against him. Still, Özil is also a close ally to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite the Turkish president’s dismal human rights record and authoritarian tendencies. At first, the hate toward Özil may have been extreme: He had merely taken photos with Erdogan, or as he told media in 2018, “respecting the highest office of my family’s country.” But it went beyond simple respect when Özil made Erdogan the best man at his wedding this past summer.
Chadwick suggests that Ozil may not have fully thought through the effects of his stances — from Turkey to China. As recently as this January, Özil starred in a commercial wishing the Chinese people a happy New Year. “For fuck’s sake, this is the guy who tried to sue his father,” says Chadwick, referring to a series of lawsuits about management disagreements waged between the two in the last decade. “He’s not an especially well-informed individual.”
Don’t expect controversies like these to abate anytime soon. China already showed how it deals with dissent in sports, reportedly asking the NBA to fire Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets this fall for the high crime of supporting protesters in Hong Kong. And as Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Emirates airline sponsors Arsenal) increase their global sports investments, cultural conflicts between a player’s free speech and a country’s self-interest will only increase. “A lot of these relationships are becoming asymmetric,” Chadwick says. “The Premier League stands to make much more out of China than China does out of the Premier League.”
Özil has yet to criticize Turkish aggression toward the Kurds in Syria, even though many also are practicing Muslims, like the Uighurs and Özil himself. (In his Instagram post, he explicitly called out other Muslim nations for not speaking against China). And so Özil, as he has so often in soccer matches, is picking his spots — jumping into the fray when it appeals, staying on the periphery when it doesn’t. The only difference is, this time, going after the goal has dragged the whole world with him.