Many of you are football fans. Today there are a great number of Muslims who shine in football, whether in France, Belgium or England. But it comes with a price:
In Europe, in countries such as France, Belgium and Germany, Islam has penetrated deep in two areas, the world of rap music and that of football. In rap we find many artists who have been able to blend in the culture of their adopted countries with their deep religious beliefs in Islam. For instance, French Abd Al Malik, a fervent Muslim, who made the hip-hop film ‘May Allah Bless France’ ! Or Hisham Aidi, head of the hip-hop group Mafia K’1 Fry, a celebrity in France.
But it is in football, that Islam has made the most inroads. There are today many football players of Muslim origin, in both French football clubs and the French national team. In fact they are sometimes in majority: in Marseilles, for instance, where lives an important Muslim population, as geographically it is close to the North Africa countries, which France had colonized – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – many of the players are French Muslims. In the French national team too, footballers of great talent, such Karim Benzama, Real Madrid’s star, or Samir Nasri, Manchester City’s brilliant midfielder, give a strong foundation to the team. Let us not forget Zinedine Zidane, probably the best ever French player, whose two unforgettable headers gave France the World Cup title in 1998. In England too, Muslim footballers have started playing a dominating role, By the 2012-13 season Newcastle, for example, one of the Premier League’s most famed teams, had seven Muslim players, for whom a special prayer room was built in their club so that they could do their namaz.
In Belgium as well, Muslim footballers abound, as it is a way for them to come out of poverty. Noticeable is Adnan Januzaj, from Manchester United. Born in Brussels, Januzaj is the son of Kosovar-Albanian parents who fled the Balkan crisis to escape the poverty. His uncle was a member of the Kosovan Liberation army that fought the Serbs for an independent Islamic Kosovo. Marouane Fellaini, also from Manu, is a player of Moroccan origin, who is a liked by all. So are Moussa Dembele & Nacer Chadli, both playing in Tottenham. It is also rumoured that Belgium Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s incomparable winger, is a Muslim as well.
These players not only shine by their dribbling or shooting skills, but also by their influence over the years on non-Muslim players. For instance the hairstyles trends started by a few footballers, are today universal amongst players. So are the beards, important for religious Muslims. Even a player like Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of Everton, a devout American Christian, sported a Muslim-like beard. Tattoos also, an ancient Muslim tradition, are today prevalent in football.
But the influence of Islam in the world of football does not stop here. The habit of razing one’s hands and eyes to the sky – to Allah, the Almighty – when entering the ground or scoring a goal, has been adopted by many players, Christians and others. Muslim players are also liked by their teammates, because they are friendly, they are trendy and have a team spirit. “It is maybe because of the universal brotherhood which exists in Islam, that Muslim players bond well with their teammates”, writes Jean Druze, a sports journalist. As a result, Muslim countries have invested heavily in European football, France’s best team, Paris Saint Germain, is owned by a Qatar Sheikh, who has poured in billions of dollars, so as to buy the best players, whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Angel Di Maria. The club of Manchester City, at the moment on top of the English Premier League, is the property of Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Arsenal’s Stadium of Light, was built with money of the Emirates airline company, which is owned by the Government of Dubai. Thus the impact of Islam in football is both talent wise as well as financial: “Football—the world’s most popular sport—has been transformed by the involvement of Muslim players » writes James B. Lagrand, a British columnist.
But there is also a darker side to this presence. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, for instance, when two French Jihadists, Said & Cherif Kouachi killed eight journalists and cartoonists “for having published drawings offensive to the Prophet”, the French Football Federation responded well by observing a moment of silence and instructing the players to wear black armbands. However, some footballers like Frank Ribery, Bayern Munich’s star, or Samir Nasri, kept an ominous silence. Others even openly wore a T-shirts saying “I am not Charlie”.
The influx of Arab money into European football, also comes with a price: after Qatar Sports Investments, owned by the present emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, purchased the French club Paris St. Germain (PSG)—- and thanks to petrodollars, made it one of the best teams in Europe, there has been accusations that Qatar plays a double game. Says Haras Rafiq, the outreach officer for the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank based in London: “On the one hand, its rulers are promoting a positive image of the country by, for example, hosting the 2022 World Cup and sponsoring Barcelona. On the other hand, they’re supporting and harboring extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and around the world.”
In 2012 Real Madrid, the richest football team in the world, to appease one of its main sponsors, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, as well as the United Arab Emirates, who is building a $1 billion sports tourist resort, removed a cross from their club crest ‘which was offensive to Islam’ (photo).
German teams such as Bayern Munich, the best and richest of the country, have also bowed down to pressure – but this time from their own Muslim players: they agreed to a request to build a mosque in the Allianz Arena stadium to serve its Muslim players and fans. The request was made by the club’s Muslim midfielder Bilal Franck Ribery. A press release stated that “the new mosque would serve Muslim players and fans with a full time imam, an Islamic library and Islamic sessions”. This has raised quite a few eyebrows in Germany, for it sets a precedent that could be followed by many clubs with Muslim players.
It is whispered too that some Muslim football players do proselytizing and encourage younger footballers to convert to Islam. One example is Nicolas Anelka, the brilliant but unruly French player, who till recently was coaching the Mumbai City competing in the Indian Super League. Frank Ribery, a non-Muslim, converted to Islam very young, under the influence of one of his seniors. There are others famous converted players: Emmanuel Adebayor, Eric Abidal, of French African origin, Thierry Henri, of Arsenal fame, or Robin Van Persie , a celebrated Dutch footballer now playing in Turkey….
Muslim players also tend to not recognise any authority except of Allah’s. In the 2010 Football World Cup for instance, a revolt against the French coach was led by Nicolas Anelka and Samir Nasri, both French Muslims. The team lost miserably and players were sent home. Samir Nasri never played again for the French national team. Samir’s girlfriend attributed this to racism, “but the truth, points out Jean Druze, is that from this moment on, the French Football federation authorities knew they had a problem with their Muslim players”. One of the issues is that it had been noticed that French Muslim players refuse to sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. After the 2010 World Cup scandal, The French Football Federation tried to enforce that all their footballers sing it. But till date, many players such as Karim Benzema, still don’t.
When it comes to the Paris attacks, which killed more than 130 people and wounded 300, the answer from the world of football has been very subdued, to say the least – and this has shocked many in France and Belgium. Freddy Gray of the Spectator, writes that: “It is not so surprising if the jihadists in Paris were targeting an international football match (France vs Germany at Stade France where three suicide bombers could not enter the stadium where French President Hollande was present – and blew themselves outside). There has for years been a strange relationship between football, Islam and violence in France”. Gray takes the example of Zinedine Zidane, who was sent off for head-butting Italian Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup. Though this gesture probably cost France the title, French Muslims inferred (wrongly) “that he had acted nobly because Materazzi had offended the Prophet”. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose father is a Bosnian Muslim, only said after the Paris terror: “I have tried to focus entirely on this game, but it was very difficult…. It’s tragic what happened there. This kind of thing should never happen…”, that left many observers baffled. Ivorian Yaya Touré, who plays in England, said he felt sorry for the families of the slain, but warned that “Muslims now feared reprisals”. As for Zinedine Zidane, he has not uttered even a word to commiserate the lives of so many of his French citizens taken & even pulled out of a charity match he was supposed to play; it was left to David Beckham to defend him.
Only one Muslim footballer has spoken publicly of his opposition to the killings in Paris: Vincent Kompany, the captain of Manchester City and a Belgium national. Vincent, who is a Christian, revealed: “ that he did not sleep for three days, specially when he learnt that the attacks of November 13 were planned from his city Brussels. But the backlash was so strong, specially amongst his Muslim teammates of Manchester City and the Belgium national team, who told Kompany “to focus his criticism on the actions of Israel and western nations involved in Syria”, that he had to backtrack and place the blame “on the ghettoes of Brussels and the neglect of the Government of its minorities“. Some fellow Muslims even questioned his African identity, suggesting he’s a stooge: “You should be ashamed of being a slave of white people”, said one of them.
And this raises an important question: in the aftermath of the 13th November Paris attacks, as well as the earlier Charlie Hebdo killings. The police and the governments of both France & Belgium, have – and still are – clamping down on known Islamic extremists, on mosques, and have discovered hundreds of weapons and explosive materials. “But writes Druze, should there not be some kind of scrutiny on what is happening silently, but surely in the world of football”. Druze goes on to quote the example of former Arsenal star Abu Issa Al-Andalusi, who joined the ISI and was seen in a propaganda video, holding an AK47 and proclaiming holy war to the West? The UK daily Mail also reported that German under-17 international Burak Karan, who played alongside such celebrities as Sami Khedira, or Kevin-Prince Boateng, was killed while fighting for al-Qaeda in northern Syria. Even more recently still writes the Mail “Five radicalised footballers from East London who left the UK to join ISIS, were in touch with British executioner Jihadi John”.