London: Everything started with a tweet. Mesut Ãzil knew the risks, in December last year, when he decided to offer a startling public denunciation of both China's treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority in the region of Xinjiang, and the complicit silence of the international community.
Friends and advisers had warned Ãzil, an Arsenal midfielder, that there would be consequences. He would have to write off China as a market. His six million followers on Weibo, the country's largest social network, would disappear. His fan club there " with as many as 50,000 signed-up members " would go, too. He would never play in China. He might become too toxic even for any club with Chinese owners, or sponsors eager to do business there.
Ãzil knew this was not fearmongering. He was aware of China's furious response " both institutionally and organically " to a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets, only a few weeks earlier. Yet Ãzil was adamant. He had been growing increasingly outraged by the situation in Xinjiang for months, watching documentaries, consuming news reports. He believed it was his duty, he told his advisers, not so much to highlight the issue but to pressure Muslim-majority nations " including Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had served as best man at Ãzil's wedding " to intercede.
And so he pressed send.
How much of what followed can be traced back to that tweet is contested. Ãzil is convinced that is the moment everything changed. Arsenal are just as adamant that it is not. There is no easy, neat way of bridging the divide between those perspectives. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps neither is. Neither Ãzil nor Arsenal were willing to discuss their differences on the record.
The outcome, regardless, is the same. A few days after Ãzil went public, the Premier League's two broadcast partners in China, CCTV and PP Sports, refused to air an Arsenal match. When the latter did deign to show Arsenal again, its commentators refused to say Ãzil's name.
His avatar was removed from video games. Searching the internet for his name in China brought up error messages. (It was reported his Weibo account was disabled, though that was not true.) Very deliberately, though, and seemingly at the behest of an authoritarian government, Mesut Ãzil was being erased.
If it felt, at the time, as if that was as bad as it would get, it was not. As it turned out, Ãzil's disappearing was just beginning.
The Pay Cut
In hindsight, Arsenal's reaction to Ãzil's decision to speak out was " at least " inconsistent. Publicly, the club moved quickly to distance itself from his comments. Privately, it considered punishing him.
His tweet, and a simultaneous Instagram post to his more than 20 million followers on that service, had caused considerable problems " not just at Arsenal, but also for the Premier League. China, after all, was its largest foreign broadcast partner, and its biggest foreign market, and the league could not afford " even in a pre-COVID-19 world " to have its games blacked out, to have its sponsors and its fans close their wallets.
"In China, a lot of the audience are not aware of the nature of the relationship between an association, a league and a player in foreign countries," said Zhe Ji, the director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company that works in China for the Premier League and a number of its teams. "They see in China the football association is in full control of the league, which is in control of the player. It puts teams, leagues and individuals in an awkward position. There is a cultural confusion."
Conscious of that, Arsenal executives urged Ãzil to avoid political statements, or at least to ensure he avoided any association with the club if he continued to make them. When the club sent out its merchandising celebrating Chinese New Year, it made sure to remove Ãzil from any of the materials.
Eager to avoid the kind of public dispute that had imperiled the NBA's billion-dollar business relationship with China, the Premier League did its best to stay above the fray. But the league and its clubs seem to pick and choose their interventions. A few months after Ãzil's tweet, players representing the Premier League's 20 clubs " Arsenal's Hector Bellerin was a leading advocate " informed the league that they would begin purposeful displays of support for the Black Lives Matter movement during games. The league quickly acquiesced to its players' political awakening.
And last week, after Arsenal's captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, tweeted in support of protests against police violence in Africa, the club issued its own statement. "To our Nigerian fans," it began. "We see you. We hear you. We feel you."
"It is becoming increasingly important that you have a point of view on this stuff," said Tim Crow, a sponsorship consultant. "If you don't, sooner or later the spotlight will turn on you, and people will ask questions about your values."
Ãzil's mistake, then, appears to be less that he made a political statement and more that he picked the wrong issue.
By the time the Premier League was discussing Black Lives Matter in the summer, of course, the world had changed. The coronavirus had forced football into a three-month hiatus, and Arsenal, like every other club, were coming to terms with the financial ramifications. Soon a new discussion began at Arsenal, about whether the team's well-paid players should accept salary cuts. And almost immediately Ãzil's stance on that issue, too, was widening the chasm between him and his club.
Even after his tweet about China, Ãzil played a reasonably prominent role for Arsenal in the first few months of 2020. Mikel Arteta, the club's new coach, had insisted in his interview for the job that he wanted to work with Ãzil, a former teammate, to see if he could coax the club's highest-paid player back to his best.
That relationship seems to have foundered as the club pressed its players to surrender some of their salaries to ease Arsenal's cash crunch. The talks lasted for six weeks, and by late April the majority had fallen in line.
Ãzil, though, still had questions. He had asked Arsenal's senior leadership for detailed answers on what the savings would be used for, whether the club's owner would also be contributing, and whether the team could assure him it would use the money to protect its nonplaying staff.
He did not feel those issues were satisfactorily addressed (though the club does). After a final Zoom call, in which Arteta urged his players to "do the right thing," Ãzil remained unmoved.
In June, the 12.5 percent wage cut was made official, and the players were presented with paperwork backdating the changes to April. Most signed immediately. Half a dozen or so lingered. Ãzil stood firm. Again, he knew the risk: that he might be ostracised by the club, that it might effectively end his career at Arsenal by refusing. It made no difference.
Ãzil has not played for Arsenal since. In August, two months after winning the wage concessions from its players, the club " citing the continuing financial impact of the pandemic " announced that it had parted company with 55 staff members. Ãzil took a particular interest in one of them.
There is, perhaps, no better indication of just how all-encompassing the distrust between Ãzil and Arsenal has become than the fact that, along with his political activism and his refusal to accept a pay cut, at least part of the tension between the parties relates to an argument over a dinosaur.
This month, it emerged that Arsenal had parted company with Jerry Quy, a lifelong fan who has spent the last 27 years dressing up as an oversize green dinosaur (possibly; his species is unclear) standing on the sideline during games. Quy is the human behind Gunnersaurus, Arsenal's slightly ironically beloved mascot.
His dismissal was, to put it mildly, a public relations disaster. Ãzil, immediately, seized on it, volunteering to pay Quy's salary until fans were permitted to return to English stadiums and Gunnersaurus could return. The club was furious.
It seemed, from the outside, that Ãzil was trolling Arsenal. It is certainly possible that he was. It was just as clear that for good or (mostly) ill, player and club were inextricably bound together.
The club had tried to sell Ãzil in the summer of 2018 and in the summer of 2019, and more recently it had been negotiating with him over buying out most of the remainder of his contract.
Ãzil, though, was unwilling to budge. Why that might be " again " is a matter of debate. Some at the club believe that, newly married and with an infant daughter, he feels settled in London and does not want to move. Many fans assume he is simply happy to collect his multimillion-dollar salary until his contract expires next year, content to be paid not to play football.
Together with the international incident his tweet provoked, and coupled with the news media whispers " fiercely denied by those close to him, and never publicly stated by the club " that his attitude is lax and his inspiration gone, Ãzil seems to have developed a reputation. Football as a whole seems to have decided that the trouble he brings outweighs his talent.
For months, a World Cup-winning playmaker has been available at a heavy discount. And yet nobody, certainly in Europe, has been willing to take him on.
The Beginning of the End
Ãzil, 32, insists it is his "love" for Arsenal that keeps him there. He had opportunities to leave over the course of this summer, according to a football executive with knowledge of the offers, but none that appealed. The size of his salary " and perhaps his reputation as troublesome " severely limits his options, even as Arsenal are so keen to move him on that they are prepared to pay two-thirds of his contract to make it happen.
It was only in the past week that the reality of his situation set in. He had already been left out of Arsenal's squad for this season's Europa League " he live-tweeted its game against Rapid Vienna on Thursday night from home " when he was told he would not be in the list for the Premier League campaign, either.
With the transfer window closed until January, it is, now, too late for him to leave. Until then, at the earliest, he finds himself in football exile: one of his own making, of his club's making, one that there does not seem to have a way out.
He believes it started with the tweet. Arsenal dispute that. Wherever it began, this is where it has led: 10 months later, Mesut Ãzil has, effectively, been erased.
By Rory Smith and Tariq Panja c. 2020 The New York Times Company