For many people around the globe, the weekend means football. We gather around the TV, awaiting new miracles and heroes. Talking about religion and football in the same breath seems only natural; for many football supporters, their team is more important than just about anything. The stadium is their cathedral, their club’s songs providing them goose bumps and a sense of community. The football shirts and scarves are proud symbols of belonging. An unexpected match win is a “miracle,” and decisive goals, rescues or tackles produce “saviors” never to be forgotten by the faithful fans.
The relationship between religion and football is multifaceted but also explicit, not just as a metaphor. In arguably the world’s most important football league, the Premier League, Islam has come into focus, although in a different way than elsewhere in the European media. We have become used to watching Christian footballers crossing themselves, or pointing to the heavens after a goal. Or born again Brazilians in t-shirts that say “I belong to Jesus” (the Brazilian Kaká) or headbands saying “100% Jesus” (his countryman, Neymar). Just last week another Brazilian, Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) posted his Christian baptism ceremony on his Instagram, saying “My biggest title is Your love, Jesus!” The Brazilians football players are, as their fellow compatriots, increasingly evangelical, known for their emotional, expressive and politically conservative form of Christianity.
But with players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané (both Liverpool), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), Paul Pogba (Manchester United),Mesut Özil, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolasinac (all Arsenal), and Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Muslim practices have become visible in new and varied ways.
The brightest star of them all is Mohamed Salah. In 2019, he appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Time acknowledges Salah for being one of the world’s best football players, but at the same time praised him as a human being. To his fans and admirers, this “Egyptian king” is laid-back, respectful towards his opponents, joyful and charming, and he lives a “simple life,” compared to the other stars. He is married to a “normal” woman (i.e. not a model), and he’s a Muslim. Together with teammate Mané, he visits the local Liverpool mosque, he engages in charity work, and doesn’t drink alcohol. Salah’s distinctive way to celebrate goals—bowing to the ground—is also on display when the FIFA 2019 “Salah” celebrates a goal, bringing the praising of Allah to millions of gamers around the world.
Last year, a group of researchers from Stanford University published a study of what they call the “Salah effect” in Merseyside. They argued that Salah’s immense popularity helped reduce hostile attitudes towards Islam in different ways. Since 2017, when Salah signed to Liverpool FC, there has been less hate-motivated crime against Muslims in Merseyside. Liverpool fans are also less critical towards Islam on social media like Twitter. And one of the songs at Anfield, Liverpool’s ground, now goes like this: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too.”
Another Muslim role model, although more controversial, is Paul Pogba, who plays at Manchester United. This tall Frenchman’s flashy clothes, expensive haircuts and muscle flexing are arguably on par with Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus. Pogba is married to a Bolivian photo model, and his 39 million (!) followers on Instagram are being treated to family photos where everyone is dressed up in all-Versace outfits. At the same time, Pogba has shared pictures of his pilgrimages to Mecca and of himself immersed in prayer. Last year, from Mecca, with a Gucci bum bag hanging fashionably over his shoulder, and posing in front of the Kaaba, the center of Mecca’s Great Mosque, he urged his Instagram-followers to “never forget the important things in life.”
Pogba, Salah and other Muslim superstars are known as football players, not Muslims. They come from different countries—from Egypt, Senegal, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, and France. In a European context, where the cultural and political soundtrack has become increasingly anti-Muslim, these super star role models make a difference. Whether the “Salah effect” remains if Salah changes clubs or stops scoring goals is uncertain. In Europe, having a minority identity might be positive as long as everything is going well, but could be negative when things turn sour. Özil (Arsenal), left the German national team because of racism, claiming that for many people he was “a German when we win, an immigrant when we lose.” Players with minority backgrounds from the national teams of Belgium and France share similar stories. But for the many Muslims in England and around the world, the new stars—from Salah to Pogba—clearly demonstrate that there are many ways to be a Muslim, also in the public.