The life of a footballer seems glamorous to the public eye. Playing in the biggest leagues in the world, earning tens of thousands of pounds every week and playing football for a living looks like the dream job for anyone.
It’s not that simple. In the age of social media, it is easier to send vile, senseless abuse than ever with just the click of a button. Most people online will never have to deal with that, not seriously, but it's the kind of thing Granit Xhaka has had to deal with for years.
Xhaka has been in the news all season thanks to his performances for Arsenal, where he has been the subject of widespread criticism from fans and the media. But it rose to a whole new level when, last Sunday, the Gunners midfielder said enough was enough.
As he was substituted in Arsenal’s win over Crystal Palace, he was met with ironic cheers which quickly turned into boos from the 60,000 strong crowd. In what was a hostile reception for their club captain, Xhaka proceeded to rip off his captain’s armband, remove his shirt and shout at them to “f--- off”.
To offer some context, I have ties to the Swiss national team. As soon as I heard what had happened, I expressed my support for Granit Xhaka. I said that he deserves so much better and that Arsenal fans were being disgusting, but not everyone shared my stance in standing with him - in particular the majority of Arsenal fans.
Sections of the fanbase continue to lambast and criticise him, insisting that he doesn’t deserve the armband and demanding an instant apology. It was as much of a naïve reception from the fans as it was the wrong reaction from Xhaka, and there is no way that it should’ve blown up in this manner.
I pointed out the online abuse Xhaka and his family have faced, but many ignorant fans ignored this and simply dismissed it. Xhaka, his wife Leonita, and their one-month-old daughter, Ayana, have been the subject of abuse so vile and disgusting, that it was painful even to read it through Xhaka’s own statement.
Who in their right mind would send this sort of abuse to a footballer, let alone a human being? A look at any of Xhaka’s Instagram posts shows the same sort of abusive and disgraceful material, with thousands upon thousands of comments left with the sole intention of expressing hate.
This abuse has been ongoing for years, and has intensified in the last couple of months. Xhaka has every right to react in the way he did, in the face of vile abuse and discouragement. While his reaction was powerful and undoubtedly controversial, he was completely entitled to react that way.
Aside from Xhaka’s ability as a footballer, there is absolutely nothing that warrants this abuse. Fans can be opinionated and criticise, but when they pass the point of encouragement and resort to abuse there is no excuse for that. Arsenal fans have acted disgracefully, and they are the ones who owe him an apology.
It is the club’s so-called fans who have brought shame upon their club. Xhaka’s reaction stemmed from their woeful treatment of their own player, and it’s shocking to see the level of abuse delivered to one of their own. If Arsenal fans deserve an apology from Xhaka, then Xhaka deserves a statue for enduring months of ill-treatment.
It’s easy to understand being frustrated with Xhaka in footballing terms, with the Swiss midfielder producing a handful of mistakes throughout the campaign. But this is not the way to react. Football can be a toxic game, and Arsenal fans epitomised that last weekend when they gave their captain a farewell fit for a rival player’s return.
Xhaka is a good man and a decorated player, whatever certain individuals on fan channels might say in fits of furious rage. He captained Borussia Mönchengladbach at 22, and has worn the armband for Switzerland for the past year.
He has already had a decorated career, and will certainly continue to enjoy success and earn personal accolades. Xhaka doesn’t deserve any of this reception, not only because of who he is as a footballer, but who he is as a human. Look beyond his profile as the Arsenal captain and Switzerland vice-captain.
A married man who became a father at the start of October. A man whose father was jailed as a political prisoner at the hands of communists. A man who has stood up in the face of adversity and abuse throughout his life and career, who never gave up and never stopped fighting.
At 27 years-old, he is one of the strongest, bravest, most respectable men in football. Whatever your opinion of his footballing ability, you cannot deny that Xhaka shouldn’t be in the receiving end of abuse. Granit Xhaka deserves so much better, much better than the Arsenal fans who claim to support their team no matter what.
If there’s one reason to show why Xhaka deserves our support, one line stands out of his statement on his Instagram. It reads: “My feeling of not being understood by fans, and repeated abusive comments at matches and in social media over the last weeks and months have hurt deeply.”
It shows why all Arsenal fans, media and football fans alike owe him an apology, and why this situation goes far beyond football.
He’s human, just like you.