Muslim Football Stars – New Ambassadors of Islam
For football fans in Singapore, the English Premier League, or EPL for short, has been something of a sporting staple. Perhaps unintentionally, it may also now become a conversation starter when talking about Islam to non-Muslims, in a strictly secular country renowned for its hush-hush approach towards religious discourse.
When the league first began in 1992, it featured only one Muslim player: Tottenham’s Nayim. Today it houses 40, a diverse group of individuals hailing from the back-streets and alleys of Europe to the arid plains of Africa and Arabia. And, unlike the Muslim footballers of yesteryears, today’s crop wear their faiths on their sleeves, prostrating after scoring, or making dua before a big match.
The Muslim Premier League
Their impact on the modern English game is the subject of much discussion in a new BBC documentary, The Muslim Premier League. The half hour feature, which you can watch below, talks to managers, players, staff and fans, to find how the game has changed following its globalisation, and the subsequent entry of devout Muslims.
It gives an insight to how Muslim players have had to deal with various dilemmas: playing through thirst and hunger in Ramadhan, wearing jerseys sponsored by betting companies and being part of a culture notorious for its alcohol, women and nightlife.
The responses given by the players in the documentary, apart from educating the watching public on the dos and don’ts associated with the religion, also provide a good dose of inspiration to young Muslims here, who may have had to deal with problems explaining themselves, and their practice of Islam, to non-Muslim superiors at work or during National Service (NS).
Demba Ba’s answer when asked how he handles football managers who frown upon his fasting during Ramadhan is particularly telling, “Every time I’ve had a manager that was not happy with it, I’ve said: ‘Listen, I’ll do it. If my performance is still good, I’ll keep playing. If it’s bad, you drop me on the bench, that’s it.’”
Ba’s no-nonsense, non-compromising attitude with regards to wanting to practice the faith is refreshing, in an era where people have often been told not to be “overbearing” in their religious requests, whether it be for time off to pray or for a slight modification to one’s uniform to meet Islamic standards of modesty.
Perhaps there is a fear that such requests will open up a host of problems, with each mainstream faith clamouring for some form of excuse, or Muslims in particular furthering some sort of agenda. As the documentary illustrates, such fears are unfounded. Prayer rooms are provided at training grounds, as are halal meats in the canteen.
If anything, the seriousness exhibited by Ba and other players leads to a better, more cohesive environment for all, with the Muslim footballers better able to contribute to their teams without undue worry. Their dedication and discipline in Islam translates to better performances on the pitch.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
Such allowances are not accorded only to the money-making superstars of the game, but also to those who work within the football clubs. Dr Zafar Iqbal is Liverpool FC’s team doctor, and a Muslim. To accommodate his dietary requirements, all the chicken prepared at the club’s canteen is halal. He also shares several interesting anecdotes about how the players and staff at the LFC respect his beliefs, though I’ll not spoil the video by mentioning them here.
According to Dr Iqbal, clubs have begun to realise that players and staff, Muslim or not, are their assets. As assets they need to be treated well to perform at their best. In my opinion, this was the best summary of the documentary, the point that hit the proverbial nail on its head.
It would seem strange that the world of English football, widely known for its intolerance and hooliganism, should be seen as a model for successful integration of Muslims into England. Nevertheless, with a growing number of immigrants into Europe, as well as the need to cast scouting nets further to find the next Demba Ba or Papiss Cisse, it will probably not be too farfetched to say that the average football fan will know more about Islam, than the average man on the street.
Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid
The writer blogs at www.hayatshah.com and is a fan of Liverpool Football Club.