You may have heard recently that Arsenal Football Club have made the decision to relieve club mascot ‘Gunnersaurus’ of his duties, after 27 years of being with the club. As Arsenal are one of the biggest football clubs in world with an incredible amount of financial backing and turnover, this decision did not go down well with Arsenal fans or the general public.
How can a football club spending £350k a week on a player who keeps the bench warm justify sacking a fan favourite mascot, who would be on a much more humble wage packet? That player in question, is German World Cup winner Mesut Özil and this is where this story gets very interesting, going much deeper than it initially seems.
Mesut Özil joined Arsenal from Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2013 and immediately made an impact on and off the pitch. As well as being recognised for being world class on the pitch, Mesut has been praised for many of the things he has done off the pitch as well. He boasts 25 million Twitter followers and 22.2 million followers on Instagram. This is in comparison to Arsenal, his employer, which has 16.4 million followers on Twitter and 18.4 million on Instagram. His social media presence is massive, and there have been many occasions which he has used his large platform for good causes.
In 2014, Mesut Özil was announced as an ambassador for the ‘Big Shoe’ initiative which uses the FIFA World Cup as inspiration to fund operations for young people around the world. The 2014 World Cup took place in Brazil, and while the tournament was ongoing and Mesut was on the pitch winning the World Cup for his country, he funded 11 operations for children in Brazil the host nation. He promoted this project across his social media to raise awareness of this charity and the cause. Most recently, he has helped 40 children get life-changing surgery in Myanmar, Southeast Asia through this charity. This charity work gave Mesut lots of good publicity and was well backed by many football fans online who praised Mesut for his generosity.
However, this story begins to turn sour when in December 2019, Mesut used his platform to raise awareness of a much more different issue, the mistreatment of the Uighur Muslims in China. He released a statement across all of his social media accounts to raise awareness of this issue and was quoted as stating that the Uighur Muslims in China were “warriors who resist persecution”. Mesut himself is a Muslim and this was an issue clearly close to his heart, however this did not go down smoothly with the Chinese population or his employers at Arsenal.
China immediately reacted by pulling one of Arsenal’s games from the state TV schedule and some Chinese fans even burnt his jerseys in protest. The most significant statement however, came from Arsenal who made it clear that these were the views of Mesut and not of the football club by stating the club “always adheres to the principles” of not getting involved in politics on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Arsenal’s statement was an attempt to keep China on their good side as at the end of the day, Arsenal are a business with millions of Chinese fans and to cut off that revenue stream would be quite idiotic from the outside looking in. However I believe there comes a time to stand up for what is right and in this instance, Mesut is in the right. This is a crisis I would not have been aware of if it were not for the Germans statement and I was not alone in the view that Arsenal’s “statement” if you can even call it that, was very disappointing.
This all coincided with Özil dropping out of the team as the club took on a new first team manager. It’s widely accepted that this is due to his lack of form when he was playing, however is it worth questioning whether or not these public disagreements off the pitch has contributed to his lack of playing time? I think it’s possible, especially as this PR battle did not end here.
We are all now well aware of the shocking events that took place in America in which George Floyd was killed by an American police officer, which resulted in the more prominent promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Premier League and all of its clubs backed this movement by displaying Black Lives Matter on the back of jerseys and players taking a knee before each game as the league kicked off again during the Covid-19 pandemic. Arsenal were very vocal in their support of this movement with lots of content on social media tagging #BlackLivesMatter.
All of this left Mesut scratching his head as when it came to the Muslim crisis in China, why was he was left on his own? Özil was supportive of the BLM movement and this is something him and the club agrees on however it must have been bittersweet to think that after their reply to his statement in December, they’ve now got involved in this as heavily as they have. He did an interview with sports outlet The Athletic and was disappointed in Arsenal and was quoted as saying “I have given a lot to Arsenal, on and off the pitch, so the reaction was disappointing. They said they don’t get involved in politics but this isn’t politics and they have got involved in other issues.”
This brings me onto the most recent news and the latest in this PR battle between the high profile star and his football club, beloved mascot Gunnersaurus. The man in the suit is called Jerry Quy and has held the job of being Arsenal’s mascot for 27 years, however he is the latest Arsenal staff member to fall victim to the Covid-19 sackings. He along with 55 others have found themselves redundant as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. These redundancies have not been received well by football fans as this is a football club who can afford to pay around £1 million in wages to players and coaches each week, but can’t afford to keep low level staff who are on much lower wages.
The latest and most high profile sacking however was Gunnersaurus. This already was giving the club a bad name, but then Mesut Özil decided he needed to do something about it. A day after the news broke, Özil released a statement on his social media “offering to reimburse Arsenal with the full salary of our big green guy as long as I will be an Arsenal player so Jerry can continue his job that he loves so much”. A very classy move by Özil which was applauded by many across football including young superstar Kylian Mbappe.
However, how bad does this make Arsenal look? Having a player cover the cost of your mascot’s wages? And of all players, it’s Mesut who has publicly has disagreements with the club before? It does not shine Arsenal in a good light at all, once again. Some may be of the opinion that Özil is doing this so publicly as a way to embarrass the club as payback for the previous issues between himself and the club. There are rumours that Arsenal did plan on giving Jerry his job back once fans were allowed back in to the stadiums and this had all been blown out of proportion however there has been no official word of this as of yet.
A relationship that started so rosy between Arsenal and Mesut Özil has soured in recent months and has the potential to end as a PR battle between both parties with Mesut’s contract due to expire in 2021. So far I would say that Mesut has won this battle of the statements as his bravery to use his platform to speak up on these issues is to be applauded. Arsenal may not have come out of this looking the best that they could, but they could still have the last say on this if they decide to bring Jerry back. At the moment it’s all up in the air about Mesut’s future at Arsenal Football Club but I also doubt that this is the last PR war the two have against each other.
Phelim Sweeney is a final year BSc Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on LinkedIn.