Can football players help break stereotypes about Islam?
Paul Pogba is the world’s most expensive footballer and now possibly the sport’s most famous Muslim. He shared pictures of his umrah from Mecca with millions of people around the world, even tweeting “Ramadan Kareem.”
His social media offerings highlighted the role that sports personalities, particularly footballers, can play in breaking down barriers and helping deliver religious literacy at a time when it is needed most.
Across the football leagues of Europe, hundreds of Muslim players ply their trade, exciting fans of all faiths. Their involvement in the English Premier League has arguably changed it forever as the influx of players mixed with worldwide commercial growth means a fan of Chelsea is as likely to come from Lahore as he or she is to be from London.
Premier teams such as Arsenal send out messages wishing their fans “Eid Mubarak” and its Muslim star players such as Mesut Ozil start each game with a Muslim prayer. Fans are even joining in.
When Newcastle United signed striker Demba Ba, he couldn’t score a goal for love or money and his fasting during Ramadan became an issue. He then went on a fantastic run, eventually scoring 16 goals. There’s not a huge Muslim population in Newcastle but the fans of the team soon had a terrace chant in Ba’s honour. To the tune of Depeche Mode’s 1980s-era pop classic “Just Can’t Get Enough,” they shoehorned Ramadan and fasting into an homage to their star striker.
Ba would go into the sajda prayer position after scoring a goal, something many Muslim players do. Gary Lineker, the former England player and commentator, on seeing two other players do this, commented that they were “eating grass.” He apologised for not knowing what they were actually doing but such is the effect of Muslim players on the sport that most commentators and fans know that the act is religious and Muslim.
This is also seen in sports such as athletics. Mo Farrah, arguably the best athlete in the world, is famous not just for his Mobot pose but also for prostrating in the sajda position after each race. Boxer Amir Khan regularly thanks God in his post-match interviews and who can forget the iconic image of sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad becoming the first hijab-wearing athlete to compete for the United States in the Olympics and the first female American Muslim to win an Olympic medal.
These sports personalities are important in breaking down stereotypes and normalising Muslims to fans, commentators and their colleagues.
It’s in the relationship with their teammates and club colleagues, however, that they show the rest of us we can learn from sport, particularly football, about how religious literacy can change how we think and help us better understand the “other” in our midst.
After several Muslim English Premier League players declined to accept their “Man of the Match” champagne bottles, the sponsors decided to replace champagne with a trophy so each player was equally rewarded.
This awareness also permeates throughout many of the clubs with Muslims on their books. From prayer spaces, halal food and faith awareness classes, clubs have embraced the needs of the growing number of Muslims players. As former England Manager Sam Allardyce said, it’s important that everyone is integrated in the club.
This understanding of creating a respectful and integrated workplace is key to delivering better results on the pitch as a happy player will be a more productive one but it’s more than that.
If you embark on this journey of understanding and tweaking your environment and practices to embrace difference, then it permeates throughout and before long becomes second nature.
Zafar Iqbal, the club doctor at Crystal Palace, was formerly in the same role at Liverpool football club. When the team won the English football league trophy at Wembley Stadium, the players approached the practising Muslim with a question. They told him that they would be celebrating the win in the dressing room and asked whether spraying champagne around would make him uncomfortable. He was told it would be over in 20 minutes.
He returned to the changing room after the champagne celebrations to find his suit, shoes and bag hanging outside the room so that they wouldn’t be covered in champagne.
What better example of religious literacy and social cohesion is there than this? Football players with enough knowledge to know that alcohol would be an issue for their Muslim colleague and enough common sense to come to an amicable solution that allows an age-old celebratory tradition to continue and their colleague to feel respected.
It’s a strange thought but, yes, we can look to football to learn how we can live together and understand each other a bit better to make our societies more religiously literate and by nature more tolerant.