End of Mesut Ozil's Adidas deal might well do the Arsenal star good

Mesut Ozil was the German poster boy when they won the World Cup but by the time of THAT photo with best-man Erdogan he wasn’t such a hot ticket and for adidas, ending his £2.5m-a-year deal is a no-brainer

  • Mesut Ozil’s £2.5m-a-year sponsorship with Adidas is likely coming to an end 
  • The sportswear brand has taken a stance on the issue of worldwide racism
  • Ozil cited racism in the national setup when he quit the German team in 2018
  • Ozil has courted controversy for his relationship with Turkish President Erdogan 
  • However, the Arsenal man has also spoken up for Uighur Muslims in China 

Adidas have made a stylish point this week on Instagram. ‘Racism’ is written in white across a black banner, with a red line crossing out the word. The following slide is some inspirational truisms. ‘Together is how we move forward. Together we have the power to make a change. Together we must fight what is wrong and try to make it right.’

On a level, it works. The sentiments might seem trite but that doesn’t mean they’re not sincere and they are also true. Many of these aphorisms, which have been circulating in recent days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, are feint echoes of the Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech.’

It’s hard to knock a major corporation trying to do the right thing. You would rather that they cared about how they looked, that they wanted to convey commendable messages than simply ignored the world around them.

Mesut Ozil’s long running sponsorship deal with Adidas is likely to be coming to an end

Back in 2014 when Germany won the World Cup, Ozil was at the peak of his powers

But even the social media team at Adidas must feel the superficiality. It’s activism without sacrifice. King paid with his life for his challenge to racism. Most of us aren’t up for that degree of commitment; a Tweet or an Instagram post might suffice. 

Genuine activism is messy, complicated and may cost money at a corporate level. Shortly after the Adidas Instagram post, Bild Zeitung reported that the firm are likely to terminate their seven-year relationship with Mesut Ozil, worth about £2.5m a year.

Though Adidas haven’t commented, you could see their reasoning if that was the case. The deal’s coming to an end anyway. Ozil’s representatives, as his £350,000-a-week deal at Arsenal demonstrates, don’t sell their client cheap. So, it is maybe that they are asking for too much, given his current status. Two assists and one goal in the Premier League this season and multiple absences do not a boot-selling icon make.

Then there’s the whole public image issue. Back in 2014, posing with Chancellor Angela Merkel and the World Cup as the poster boy for modern, integrated Germany, Ozil was at the peak of his powers. By 2018, photo ops with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey led to him being booed by his own fans in Germany and he wasn’t such a hot ticket. 

Ilkay Gundogan, Ozil and Cenk Tosun pose with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Reports say that none of the above was relevant to Adidas, that if the deal isn’t renewed it will be merely the natural end of a mutually beneficial long-term relationship.

But he also is pretty much the only footballer who has spoken up for Uighur Muslims in China being detained in re-education camps in the Xinjiang region. According to Amnesty, up to one million Muslims have been forced into these camps. 

Clearly any friend of Erdogan – last year the President was best man at Ozil’s wedding – is a very compromised human rights advocate. Like Pep Guardiola – vocal on imprisoned Catalan separatists but less so on political prisoners in Abu Dhabi – Ozil has discovered that standing up for one set of human rights brings increased scrutiny. Human rights aren’t an à la carte menu.

It doesn’t make Ozil wrong on China though, which means he will be pretty much untouchable for any corporation which has aspirations to sell their goods in the world’s largest and most-lucrative market, given the condemnation Ozil faced from the Chinese state when making his stance. 

Ozil sparked criticism when Erdogan was best man at his wedding to Amine Gulse last year

Witness Arsenal’s swift disassociation of their brand from Ozil. ‘The content published is Ozil’s personal opinion,’ said the club. ‘As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.’

However, there are times when it appears the club is happy to be involved in issues outside its immediate scope. Its social media feeds participated in Black Out Tuesday, with requisite messages of support for the black community.

For all corporations – media included – there are hard questions to be asked as to how you would genuinely attempt to support human rights and, in the specific context of George Floyd, confront racism.

But for Adidas and sportswear companies specifically, the challenge would be with which athletes do you want to work? In the natural course of events, an ageing Ozil, who has quit the German national team (who Adidas sponsor) and is likely to leave Arsenal (who Adidas sponsor) when his deal runs out in 2021, this is a commercial no-brainer. 

Ozil’s sponsorship contract with Adidas is thought to be worth in the region of £2.5m-a-year

Ozil and Sami Khedira at the presentation for the 2018 Adidas Germany national team kit

Ozil rode the sponsorship market at its peak and now he has to accept the brutality of no longer being the bright young star.

Yet Ozil also grew up in Bulmke Hullen, a mini Turkish enclave in the German city of Gelsenkirchen, his mum a cleaner and his dad a factory worker. They lived in a small flat, he spoke only Turkish until he was four. 

He is third generation Gastarbeiter (guest worker), the second-class status initially conferred on migrant workers who came to Germany after the Second World War to help build the economic powerhouse the nation became. His grandparents made the trip to the Ruhr from Zonguldak in the 1950s. 

‘When I look into the future and where I’d like to live, I’ll say Germany because I grew up there and like the discipline the people have,’ says Ozil. ‘But my background is from Zonguldak in Turkey. I’m there a lot.’

Rejected by Schalke as a child, despite his technical skills, Ozil came to believe that less-skilful players, with names such as Jurgen and Mathias, would often be picked up by Bundesliga clubs. But a boy called Mesut seemed curiously overlooked. Think how that must have felt for a ten year old.

Ozil said he had no regrest about posing for the controversial photograph with Erdogan

The midfielder sensationally quit the German national team after the 2018 World Cup in Russia

Few would argue that his friendship with Erdogan reflects well on him but the reaction to his photo op was vile. Ozil was booed by his own fans but also subjected to racist abuse. 

The anti-migration party, the AFD, questioned his loyalty to Germany and called for him to be sent home from the World Cup. And when Germany went out in the group stages of 2018, guess who got the blame? Ozil quit the team citing racism in the national set up. 

‘I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose,’ said Ozil. German FA president Reinhard Grindel denied that but admitted he hadn’t protected Ozil enough.

Along with politician Cem Ozdemir or actor Erol Sander, Ozil is probably the most recognised and important voice for Germans with Turkish heritage. As such, his significance persists even when his footballing prowess is failing. 

Ozil still has an important voice when it comes to Germans with a Turkish heritage

His voice is still a rare one in western Europe, an outsider who has risen to the top of society. His stance on Uighur Muslims makes him a much more interesting figure than anything he has said about football. 

If a major corporation were to amplify that voice, that would take real courage. It would be counter intuitive as well. It wouldn’t sell many football boots. But it might change attitudes. It might do good.

Of course, the bottom line is where business operates. If Adidas wants to sell trainers, gym kit and football boots and avoid the tricky, messy business of human rights then it has every right to do so. 

If they eventually decide that Ozil doesn’t help them in that venture, then his contract won’t be renewed and he will presumably get by on the £350,000 a week he is paid at Arsenal. 

The problem for Adidas and corporations is when they want to use an issue to increase brand awareness. At that point we’re entitled to ask the difficult questions.

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