Players and prayers: The impact of Muslims in UK football
5 February 2012, St James Park Stadium. The ball floats into the Aston Villa box with pace. The towering Newcastle United striker Demba Ba rises in the air to try to head it in, to no avail, as the defender blocks it. The ball bounces twice across the penalty area before the full back strikes the ball low back across the box. An unprepared Demba Ba sticks his right foot out and by a miracle he brings it under control. It lands slightly in front of him, he spins his body while sliding low and slots it past the keeper. The crowd goes wild!
He runs towards the corner flag while pointing to the fans who are in hysteria. Alongside him appears fellow Senegalese forward, Papiss Cisse. They both lower themselves to the ground to assume a position of prostration, an element of Islamic prayer known as Sujud.
This is the moment during which a worshipper is closest to their Lord. In the position, one is as physically as low as the body can be, while being as spiritually high as the soul can be.
This crucial component of Islamic prayer has become such iconic imagery within the English game. So much so, in fact, that the celebration made it into the world’s biggest football video game, FIFA 13.
''Whilst increased diversity and inclusion within the UK’s favourite sport is something to celebrate, it is important to note that it hasn’t always been like this.''
Football and combatting Islamophobia
Our outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, likened Muslim women who wear burqas to ‘letterboxes’ prior to taking office. A week after this unashamed Islamophobic comment was made, it was reported that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375%.
At the same time as this statement was made, establishing a very different narrative about Muslims, was footballer Mohamed 'Mo' Salah who was lacing his boots for the beginning of the 2018-2019 Premier League season. This was the second season in a row he was expected to achieve the title of top scorer, also known as the Golden Boot.
Salah, a man born in a small Egyptian village a few hours north of Cairo, is shaping up to be one of English football’s greatest ever strikers and has not been afraid of representing his faith outwardly and openly, on and off the field.
In fact, he even inspired an Anfield anthem. Fans sing:
“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in the mosque, that’s where I wanna be!”
A Stanford University study found that Salah’s presence was fundamental in a decrease of hate crimes in the city of Liverpool by 18.9% as well as a 53% drop of anti-Muslim Tweets amongst Liverpool fans.
Whilst increased diversity and inclusion within the UK’s favourite sport is something to celebrate, it is important to note that it hasn’t always been like this.
In the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1992, there was only one known Muslim in the entire division, Tottenham Hotspurs’ Nayim. In the 30 years since, the climate has changed and the number of Muslim players has exponentially grown. So too has their presence on social media where they can often be found taking pride in filling a representative role.
Up and coming Manchester United star Zidane Iqbal is one example of a player who visibly presents his faith identity, with his Instagram bio reading ‘Alhamdulillah’, which means praise be to God – a phrase uttered by Muslims in both moments of success and sorrow, showing gratitude at all times.
This may not seem much to some, but for young footballers who haven’t seen many players at a top level that they can relate to, especially residing within a culture so far from their own, this representation means everything. Manchester United’s first ever Iraqi international is an icon for the people of his homeland, as well as Arabs and Muslims all over the world, and his immense talent will become evident in the coming years.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has always been a controversial topic since players began openly fasting. In the 2013 BBC documentary The Muslim Premier League, a Newcastle United fan who was interviewed said, “[t]he only issue I’ve got with regards to religion and football, is when some of the players are obviously fasting through Ramadan and they’re not the player that they could be”.
In the interview that followed, Demba Ba recalls “[e]very time I had a manager that was not happy with it [fasting] I just tell him listen, I’ll do it, if my performances are still good then I’ll keep playing, if it’s bad you drop me on the bench and that’s it”.
There are many factors that affect a footballer’s performance, targeting a practice of faith without justification is problematic. Furthermore, this theory has been debunked many times by the players themselves. Recently, Saïd Benrahma had one of his best performances of the season by tearing up Burnley, while fasting.
Another important symbol of the unapologetic presence of Muslim voices on the pitch, is the visible signs of Palestine solidarity which have increased over the years.
From Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo, to Leicester’s Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana, we witnessed many players carrying the Palestine flag around stadiums in response to Israel’s military assault on Gaza, and the attempted expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem in May 2021.
Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez went a step further than his solidarity on the pitch and posted the Palestinian flag online with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah – the neighbourhood where Israel attempted to displace Palestinians who’ve lived there for generations.
It’s acts of solidarity, representation and even just success within the game that give legitimacy and familiarity in the UK, to Muslims, their religious beliefs and what’s important to them. We’ve got a long way to go in undoing the effects of decades of negative press about Islam and Muslims as a result of the war on terror, but step by step, one day we will truly kick it out of the game for good, inshaAllah.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_
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