The beautiful thing about football is that some people will have read the headline above and understood straight away where this is going, whilst for most it will have made no sense at all. For those who know what I am talking about here, skip to the fifth paragraph, and for those who don’t, I’ll start with a quick explainer.
The first protagonist in this episode is Mesut Özil, a midfielder for Arsenal FC. He was once arguably their best player, arriving for a big fee from Real Madrid seven years ago and lighting up the Premier League with his vision. Sadly, his star has waned slightly over the past few years, and of late he has found himself out of favour and watching from the stands for extended periods. Arsenal are reportedly keen to sell the German international, who is paid £350,000 a week, but he is not keen to budge.
The other main character in the tale is Gunnersaurus, Arsenal’s seven foot dinosaur mascot. The dinosaur suit, which is donned by club employee Jerry Quy, has been cheering the team on at home fixtures for the past 27 years. However, on October 5, Arsenal announced that they were making 55 staff members redundant, including the beloved Gunnersaurus.
The very next day, the club splashed out £45m on new signing Thomas Partey, which led many to question how the club could justify spending such sums on a single player whilst making day-to-day staff jobless in the current economy. There is, of course, more to this than meets the eye given that stadiums are expected to remain empty for the foreseeable future, but this is not the place for a discussion on football clubs’ financial decision-making during the pandemic.
What there is time for is a discussion of Mesut Özil’s response to the situation. The day after Gunnersaurus was let go, Özil put out a message on Twitter expressing his sadness at the news and announcing that he was offering to pay Gunnersaurus’ wages, signing off with the poignant message of #JusticeForGunnersaurus. At first glance, this is a lovely gesture, but beneath the surface there is more at play.
There is no doubting that Özil’s offer is an honourable gesture, and one that will have a positive impact on the life of a man who has dedicated his life to his football club. However, by going straight to Twitter to share his offer, he implicitly went against the club’s decision. In offering to keep Quy in a job, he made it clear that he believes that what his superiors at Arsenal did is wrong. Crucially, he did so on a public platform rather than behind closed doors, sharing his feelings directly with his 25 million followers.
This doesn’t seem like that big a deal but, in football, players don’t usually have much of a voice. They have previously been limited to 2-minute interviews before or after a game, where they will stick to a strict script of pre-defined lines and clichés. “There’s no such thing as an easy game”, “we will have to put a shift in” and “the opposition are a top top team”, they will say before the game. After the game, with a bit more colour in their cheeks and a wry grin on their faces, they will turn to “I’m really proud of the team performance”, “the result is the most important thing at the end of the day” and “we’re just taking each game as it comes”.
Even the players’ social media accounts, which you would expect to showcase a little more of their personality, are typically managed by their agent or publicist, meaning the content tends to toe the club line. Of late, though, we have begun to see players increasing the volume of their voice.
Perhaps the most notable example of this recently is Marcus Rashford, who has done amazing work using his platform to hold the government to account over tackling food insecurity. At the age of just 22, his campaigning forced a government U-turn over the extension of free school meals for children during the summer holidays, and he has since set up a child food poverty task force.
The recent Özil episode fits into this same trend. As mentioned earlier, the midfielder has 25 million followers on Twitter, which is actually more than Arsenal themselves, who only boast 16 million. So, by making a seemingly benevolent offer, he has put a spotlight on a point of embarrassment for the club, and in some ways pitted himself against his employers.
That said, given that he is currently not being given any game-time regardless, and is still under contract for another year, he has nothing to lose here. His stock rises as a result of this selfless gesture, and the club is made to look like the bad guys when they continue to keep him out of the first team. So, while the stakes are significantly lower than Marcus Rashford’s use of his platform, you could argue that Özil’s is tactically more interesting.
It has traditionally been rare to see a footballer come out publicly against their club, but with Özil’s defence of Gunnersaurus, Rashford’s food campaign, and Leo Messi’s recent feud with Barcelona, I believe we are entering the era of player power. Personally I welcome it with open arms; down with cut-and-paste interviews, and up with #JusticeForGunnersaurus.
Mesut Ozil has offered to reimburse Arsenal for the salary of Gunnersaurus if they give the mascot his job back. Ozil, who is out of favour with boss Mikel Arteta and has yet to play this season, has now tweeted that he will pay the mascot's salary for as long as he is an Arsenal player.