Football and Islam: How the Sporting World is Adapting
N’Golo Kante, Mohamed Salah, Hakim Ziyech, Ibrahima Konate… just a small number of growing footballers in the Premier League of Muslim faith.
Unapologetically following their faith on a public platform is not easy, but it is evident during celebrations of goals and trophies. Mohamed Salah is known to prostrate to the floor after scoring, known as sujood, Antonio Rudiger always started games before kick-off by making a prayer, known as a dua.
Last season, Sadio Mane stepped to the side during Liverpool’s FA Cup celebrations to avoid alcohol being poured on him, Muslim players did not have alcohol bottles in front of them during press conferences at the Euro 2020 and Arnaut Danjuma mentioned during his time at Bournemouth, the club provided him with prayer room facilities at the training base, to provide a clean space to observe his daily prayers.
For context, Muslims pray five times a day (before sunrise, at mid-day, mid-afternoon, sunset and night), so you can imagine a vast majority of these prayers falling during training hours, especially during the winter.
One of the pillars of Islam includes fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims can’t drink or eat from sunrise to sunset, and as Muslims follow the lunar calendar, the Islamic months move by 9-10 days each year. As a result, Ramadan is not ‘set in stone’ by a specific date the way other religious holidays like Christmas (December 25), for example.
In recent years, Ramadan has been observed during the peak of summer, falling in place during international tournaments, but as the calendar has changed, it has gotten closer to the regular football season.
During the 2021/22 season, Ramadan landed at the beginning of April and ended at the beginning of May, thus impacting the Premier League fixtures, FA Cup fixtures and Champions League knockout rounds.
One club that have committed to inclusion and diversity is Liverpool FC. Sadio Mane mentioned in April that training and playing during Ramadan was not easy, particularly for daytime kickoffs.
Eager to make life a tad easier for his Senegalese teammate, captain Jordan Henderson initiated talks with manager Jurgen Klopp to alternate training schedules during the month to allow players who were fasting to take advantage of when they have the most energy, which is earlier in the day.
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As a result, Klopp changed the training schedules to morning sessions and remained committed to getting the best out of his Muslim players, whilst allowing them to observe their religion.
Other aspects of the football world have begun to adapt to Ramadan too. During the 21/22 season, Graham Scott briefly stopped the game between Leicester and Crystal Palace to allow Wesley Fofana and Cheikhou Kouyate to open their fast quickly with something sweet and water.
As Muslims open their fast at sunset, evening kick-offs would coincide with this, hence why an initiative taken by the referee has been praised. Something similar also happened when Burnley and Everton faced off, allowing Abdoulaye Doucouré to open his fast at sunset too.
Despite the ever-changing football world and push for inclusivity, some clubs have yet to offer this. Prior to Manchester United’s meeting with Liverpool, interim manager Ralf Rangnick mentioned during a press conference that there was no intention for Pogba to open his fast during the game, as the game started shortly before sunset.
Rangnick went on to say “As a player, as a professional, he’s used to this. I haven’t spoken to him about this, it won’t affect his performance. As far as I know, Paul Pogba is fasting but, as I said, I haven’t talked to him about it in person.”
Pogba ended up leaving the game in the first ten minutes following an injury knock. During Ramadan in the 2021/22 season, Pogba did not play a full 90 minutes in the Premier League, and he also was a victim of criticism regarding Islamic posts during earlier seasons at Utd.
After posting a video of him reciting the Quran on Instagram, United legend Ryan Giggs criticized the post and stated he should ‘do his talking on the pitch.’ And whilst Pogba has since joined Juventus on a free transfer, United still have an ample amount of Muslim youngsters coming through their academy such as Hannibal Mejbri and Zidane Iqbal.
In 2019, Mesut Ozil put a post on Instagram regarding the treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang last year and criticised the Chinese government. Although Arsenal did not publicly reprimand the star for his comments, they posted specifically on a Chinese social media site called Weibo that the club does not get involved in politics and that they adhere to the club’s principles at all times.
This eventually led to Ozil becoming exiled from the club and eventually leaving, his career has not been the same since. He mentioned his disappointment in the club, as there are a number of Muslim players at the club and in the past, as well as fans.
Many people wonder the reasoning behind this; if there was pressure on the club to exclude Ozil from lineups after these comments and other external factors that influenced this.
Ozil also argued that this was not directly to do with his religious beliefs, but more so his human beliefs and he would speak out regarding injustices no matter what.
In comparison, Wesley Fofana and Hamza Choudhury waved the flag of Palestine in support of injustices occurring in Gaza following the FA Cup, with no criticism whatsoever from Leicester City.
Studies show that, since the arrival of Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, hate crimes in the city fell by 16%. The study also showed that anti-Muslim tweets from Liverpool fans halved in comparison to other top-flight teams.
The study suggests that exposure to celebrities from stigmatized groups can reduce prejudice. Liverpool fans have even gone the extra mile to include references to his religion regarding chants for the forward.
In 2016, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Everton, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur confirmed they do have stadium multifaith prayer facilities, providing access to fans who would like to observe prayers during matchdays.
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During the winter, prayer times are more congested, resulting in one or two prayers being observed during 12:30 kick-offs. Chelsea, Leicester, and Wembley Stadium are also offering these same prayer facilities now.
As there is always mention of players, the mention of fans tends to go under the radar. As well as prayer facilities, some clubs also provide halal food options at stadium kiosks.
My own personal experience attending games at Old Trafford surprised me; as I approached the kiosk to buy a crisp and a drink, a Muslim employee told me the chicken pies were halal; something I did not expect. Having frequented many football stadiums, this left a great impression on me.
As society encourages inclusion and diversity, there is still a lot of work to be done to provide an inclusive football world. However, more and more clubs are acknowledging religious holidays across all religions and posting Ramadan and Eid messages across social media to announce the arrival of the new holiday.
Whether Karim Benzema leading Real Madrid to a Champions League triumph, Paul Pogba winning the World Cup with France, or Sadio Mane leading Senegal to a first-ever AFCON, more and more Muslim footballers are making headlines for the right reasons, and we can expect more positive changes to occur as inclusion and diversity progress both on and off the pitch.
By: Mina Ibrahim (@Mina_MUFC)
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Angel Martinez / Getty Images