Arsenal match pulled from Chinese broadcast after star player's criticism

Ethnic Uighur boys hold placards that read "Thank you, Mesut Ozil, on behalf of 35 million oppressed" during a protest in Istanbul on Dec 14, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - English Premier League soccer team Arsenal Football Club is already facing repercussions after one of its star players made critical comments about the treatment of the Uighur minority in China.

China's state-run CCTV will no longer show a live broadcast of its match against Manchester City this weekend, despite the club's attempt to disassociate itself from the remarks.

Instead, it will show a pre-recorded game between Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal's local rival, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

This comes months after a National Basketball Association general manager's defence of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong led to a backlash from China.

Arsenal will now look to see if the comments from player Mesut Ozil will lead to further consequences.

In Instagram and Twitter posts, Ozil accused Muslims of staying silent over the mistreatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in China, becoming one of the most prominent public figures to condemn Beijing on the issue.

"Qurans are burned. Mosques are closed. Their schools are banned," said the Muslim player, who is often seen praying on the field, "but the Muslim community is silent."

The club responded with a post on Weibo, where it has more than five million followers, distancing itself from the player's comments.

"The content published is all Ozil's personal opinion," the team said.

"Arsenal, as a football club, has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics."

A number of commenters under the Weibo post said the club needed to take further action, and one user posted an image of an Arsenal jersey emblazoned with Ozil's name cut up with a pair of scissors.

Arsenal may have been attempting to protect itself from any bitter response from China, a country with at least 187 million football fans, based on Nielsen estimates.

The club, which also operates a sports bar and restaurant in China, announced plans in early 2019 to expand its chain as it seeks to grow its fan base in the region.

A United Nations assessment said tens of thousands to "upwards of one million" Uighurs have been detained in China, although the government says it's fighting separatism and religious extremism.

China blacked out some NBA's games in October after Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.

He deleted the message, but China took umbrage and the NBA's sponsors in the country cut ties with the US league.

Arsenal's response mirrors the post by the basketball team's billionaire owner Tilman Fertitta.

More recently, Chinese video-sharing app TikTok suspended, and then later restored, the account of a user after she posted viral videos critical of the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.