LONDON (Reuters) - Arsenal’s decision to distance the club from midfielder Mesut Ozil’s criticism of China’s policy towards its Muslim Uighur minority won’t surprise anyone familiar with the scramble by Europe’s soccer powers for a slice of the expanding Chinese market.
China is now the English Premier League’s most lucrative overseas market, with the country paying 564 million pounds for a three-year TV rights deal, while Italy, Spain and Germany have also pocketed big deals.
Wolverhampton Wanderers are fully Chinese-owned, while the owners of English champions Manchester City sold around 13 percent of the club to a Chinese investment company.
Most clubs have some level of Chinese sponsorship, while the Premier League Asia Trophy pre-season tournament was held in Shanghai and Nanjing this year.
The annual Red Card report by Shanghai-based consultancy Mailman, which tracks social media and digital engagement, listed Arsenal as the seventh most followed European club on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform in 2018.
Former Germany international Ozil was rated as the fifth most influential player in the world. A Muslim, born in Germany from parents of Turkish origin, Ozil’s best man at his wedding earlier this year was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Red Card report also said Arsenal are among the front-runners when it comes to digital commercialization and brand awareness in China.
The 31-year-old Ozil, Arsenal’s highest-paid player, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram where he called minority Uighur Muslims “warriors who resist persecution”.
The London club said afterwards on Weibo that “the content he expressed is entirely Ozil’s personal opinion,” and stated that the club had a principle of not being involved in politics.
That did not stop China’s state broadcaster from pulling Arsenal’s game against Manchester City from its schedules on Sunday, amid a social media backlash in the country against the club.
The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between one and two million mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims have been detained in harsh conditions in Xinjiang as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.
China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs.
The Premier League declined to comment. Other major European leagues and several top clubs contacted on Monday by Reuters asking if they had concerns over political interference or a clampdown on free speech for players in China also declined to comment.
The issue has echoes of the dispute earlier this year when the Chinese Basketball Association and several companies cut ties with the NBA’s Houston Rockets and games were cut from TV schedules after the team’s general manager had expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
That dispute is still affecting the NBA, with reduced screening of games. The University of Liverpool’s Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert, said Arsenal could also suffer fallout down the line.
“On things like negotiations for local sponsorship deals, pre-season tours, merchandise sales, I think that will have a negative impact,” he told Reuters.
“Arsenal are conscious, given the value of the rights and the sensitivity of the Chinese government, that they have had to treat this as delicately as they can.
“The Premier League is a global competition in terms of the support it gets from foreign investors and so as far as the clubs are concerned they are agnostic when it comes to how individual countries choose to run their governments.”
Amnesty International’s Business and Human Rights Analyst William Nee said: “Arsenal does not need to endorse Ozil’s comments, but it must be aware that it is at risk of being a tool of Chinese censorship if it subsequently punishes him for his views.”
Arsenal have not suggested Ozil will face any sanction for his comments.