What do Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keïta have in common? Besides their football club, of course. The answer I’m looking for though is their religion, Islam.
It’s very rare in my writing that I stray away from tactics, statistics or areas in which I feel well-versed in, indeed, identity and faith are aspects rarely covered by sporting literature in general. Exceptions do stand out – take Muhammad Ali as a physical manifestation of a religiously-centred sportsman, or CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary as exceptional examples – but then again, why should identity and faith receive attention? Sport, and football, in particular, is, after all, a meritocratic game, in which the hierarchy is defined by skill and ability, rather than conceptions of race, heritage, nationality or religion.
At its heart though, football is a children’s game. It’s children who play the most football. It’s children who cry the most when their team loses. It’s children who watch the most football too, waking up early on Sunday mornings to watch Match of the Day, then the Football League Show, and then the Sunday fixtures. And it’s children who play it in its purest form – playing for the sake of sheer enjoyment, unburdened by positions, expectations or the need to play to earn a living. It’s a real shame that children don’t have forums in which they can engage with each other about their love for the game, and share their thoughts, instead, they have to listen to ours, and the sanitised takes of journalists, or the hot, intentionally provocative soundbites from pundits. As children grow older though, their conversations begin to mirror our own. Talk turns to transfer fees, ticket prices, the fixture schedule, and so on. In this process, we lose that youthful innocence and unfettered love for the game as a game.
You may wonder as to why then I highlighted the shared faith of four of Liverpool’s players. Surely, identity, race politics and religion matter little to young boys and girls? Well, in some ways, yes. No child is predisposed to dislike a player because of their skin colour or religious beliefs. However, children are always seeking role models, and it certainly helps to have a role model in which you can see part of yourself in.
Indeed, a number of my father’s friends are Liverpool supporters, why? Because John Barnes used to play for Liverpool, and not only was he the most dazzling player with the ball at his feet, but he looked like them too. At primary school, a majority of my black classmates supported Arsenal; I’m sure the success of the club may have swayed them too, but seeing players such as Henry or Vieira, who not only looked like them, but their fathers, uncles and so on surely helped foster that childish ambition, that one day, they could be like Henry or Vieira too.
A close family friend of ours has a young boy, still in primary school. For his birthday he asked for a Liverpool shir, because he knows my father and I support Liverpool. Across the back of his shirt is Mohamed Salah’s name.
“You like Salah?” I asked him.
“He’s the best!” he replied, with a toothy grin accompanying it.
“Yeah, he’s pretty good!”
Mind you, this was before Salah had even reached 15 league goals – the young man had a foresight which I was foolish to not heed more attentively. That being said, for a young boy of Iraqi heritage, seeing a player that looks and sounds similar to you is always comforting in some small way, especially when, as is his case, he cannot return home, for it has been destroyed. His cultural links to what is his father’s homeland lie in ruin, and are now intangible – he has no family left in Iraq. So instead of defining his own identity through his nationality, he will likely lean upon the cultures of his new home country, but also his religion – one which he shares with Mo Salah. He now has a role model who he can look to and engage with, with respect to his cultural and religious identity as an Iraqi, but also as a young boy living in Britian, and supporting a British football club.
Whilst an extreme example of how shared faith with role models can be comforting to a child, it’s easy to see why having a positive and prominent role model may be important and helpful to young boys and girls. Indeed, for a religion that includes over 1.7bn people, it’s strange that prominent role models within the media, Hollywood or professional sport have been so few and far apart over the past half-century. In recent years we have seen a rise though, as Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Mo Salah have picked up the Premier League Player of the Year award. Whilst we may have seen Muslim players such as Momo Sissoko, Aly Cissokho or Emre Can at Liverpool in recent years too, it’s worth remembering children always want to identify with the big names, and Salah, Mané, Keïta and Shaqiri all deliver on with their star attraction qualities.
In an era in which partisanship and extremism seems to swell with each day, pushing communities apart, and negatively focussing upon aspects of people’s heritage, background, working status, religion and so on, it’s pleasing to see four immigrants, each from different backgrounds, displaying themselves as representatives of Liverpool and the Muslim faith, for young children to look up to. As a child, you want to see people like you in the news or playing football or even just at school.
For years, young children of different faiths have looked up to idols, but idols that they cannot fully connect with. Steven Gerrard and Kaka were my heroes growing up, and when Kaka unveiled a shirt proclaiming “I belong to Jesus” after winning the Champions League Final in 2007, millions of young Christian children could identify with that, but I just couldn’t. Seeing Mo Salah, on the pitch, lying prostrate in what’s known as sujud or sajdah – a position synonymous with praying in Islam, and in which the person praying submits humbly – was something I could connect with though, and something that brought a smile to my face. Even at my age, I thought to myself, “I do that”, and it’s good to know that whilst I can’t score 32 goals in a Premier League season, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané still do the same stuff as me, and over a billion other people across the globe.
Having players of different faiths and background does not just provide confidence to children, but it can help bring people together, and re-engage previously disenfranchised people. A Persian friend of mine supports Manchester United, and is trying to get his younger brother to support them too, whilst his father is completely indifferent to football, that was until Mo Salah set the league alight. From December onwards, his father demanded my friend put on every Liverpool match so he could see this phenomenal player. A player who he would chat all-night to his sons and friends about, despite previously caring little for football.
Islam probably recieves a disproportionate amount of attention within the media, likely because of anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim rhetoric, coupled with that the UK has been the subject of terror attacks in recent years, perversely claimed to be in the name of Islam. Whilst as a Muslim, you have no responsibility for these actions, you feel the weight of them, as you walk through town with uncomfortable looks thrown your way, or are needlessly quizzed about your views on the attacks at work. Without prominent Muslim individuals to point to, it’s hard to speak freely about faith, and sometimes faith can feel like a burden, as you become the subject of racist abuse, or as you see your Muslim friends pulled aside, stopped and held at airports for several hours without explanation. As strange as it may seem though, having people like Mo Salah, or Sadio Mané who we can point to as positive, good-intentioned, talented ambassadors of Islam really helps people, and especially children, feel more integrated and accepted. Indeed, it’s strange going to the pub for the first few times with your mates and being asked what you drink, and just having to explain that you don’t. But when the entire pub is bouncing and proclaiming “sitting in the mosque is where I want to be” or if “he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too”, suddenly you feel at home and at one with everyone else.
Children across the world, despite adverse and hostile rhetoric in nations such as the USA or the UK, may see these four men and might just think, “Hey, these Muslims aren’t so bad after all”, or perhaps an Albanian girl will reject hateful anti-Kosovan comments within the Albanian discourse upon seeing Xherdan Shaqiri working within the Liverpool community. Seeing players of religions or ethnicities which are maligned within the media, political discussions, and so on, do well when playing football – a benign profession – is something which can defuse tension, and dissipate it.
In some ways, that’s what football is really about. Anyone can be a footballer, and anyone can be a fan. But seeing people who I can identify with, just makes me feel just that bit more of a fan, and one who is appreciated.