Arsenal’s Mesut Özil has been removed from Chinese versions of Pro Evolution Soccer 2020, following the Premier League star’s outspoken stance regarding Uighur Muslims reportedly being kept in prison camps in Xinjiang.
The 31-year-old, who rarely uses Twitter and other social media during the Premier League season, posted an image of the former East Turkestan republic flag with a message calling Uighurs in China “warriors who resist persecution.”
“[In China] Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet,” he said on December 13, as translated by The Guardian.
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) December 13, 2019
Following the comment, several Chinese fan sites announced they will stop posting football news relating to Özil, according to the Chinese press, while a Chinese simulation game stopped the production of Özil player cards after the news.
Now, the star has also been removed from Pro Evolution Soccer’s Chinese releases by eastern publisher NetEase, who said Özil’s comments “hurt the feelings of Chinese fans and violated the sport's spirit of love and peace.”
"The German player Özil posted an extreme statement about China on social media… we do not understand, accept, or forgive this,” NetEase said.
China’s foreign ministry also weighed in on Özil’s comments, suggesting the German-Turkish player had been “deceived by fake news,” while many comments on Weibo—China’s main social media platform—call for the 31-year-old to be sacked.
“Do you know how Arsenal fans in China have spent the last two days?” one self-declared former Arsenal supporter posted on the forum.
“They are struggling to understand how the club and idol they once loved has turned out to be a rumourmonger. Of course, if you intend to attack China, you are as insignificant in our hearts as dirty ants.”
As well as Özil's removal from the football simulator, Chinese state television channels also pulled screenings of Arsenal’s most recent Premier League match against England’s defending champions Manchester City.
The removal of the league’s matchday 17 clash comes after most references to Özil at all were removed from the internet in China, basically erasing the German star from existence for those accessing online information in the country.
This isn’t the first time Chinese investors have strong-armed game developers after public comments speaking out against the country’s current regime either.
Earlier this year, Hearthstone pro Chung ‘Blitzchung’ Ng Wai was banned from the game’s professional circuit and docked his season’s winnings after he called for the liberation of Hong Kong during the GrandMasters tournament.
The backlash against Hearthstone publishers Blizzard from the online community was immediate and swift. Other pro players across titles like Overwatch threatened to boycott the company, while fans started the #BlizzardBoycott hashtag.
The ban, and Blizzard’s much-criticized non-response to the whole situation, even drew the eye of several US Representatives and members of Congress, who penned a bipartisan letter to Activision Blizzard condemning their actions.
While Blizzard eventually reinstated Blitzchung’s prize money, and reduced his hefty ban from the circuit to just six months, it doesn’t look like there are any plans for Özil to return to the 2020 release of PES, especially considering it’s China only.
PES fans should keep their eyes on the news, however. If NetEase wants to put pressure on Konami to bump Özil from the game, the 31-year-old midfielder may find himself disappearing from the world of PES entirely.