But it is in football that Islam has made the most inroads. There are today many football players of Muslim origin in French football clubs as well as the French national team. They are even in majority sometimes: in Marseilles, for instance, where lives a large Muslim population given its proximity to North African countries that France had colonised (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), many players of the game are French Muslims. The French national team too has many Muslim footballers of great talent, such Karim Benzama, Real Madrid’s star, or Samir Nasri, Manchester City’s brilliant midfielder. Let us not forget Zinedine Zidane, perhaps the best ever French player, whose two unforgettable headers gave France the FIFA World Cup title in 1998. In England too, Muslim footballers have started playing an important role. By the 2012-13 season, Newcastle, one of the Premier League’s most famous teams, had seven Muslim players, for whom a special prayer room was built in their club so that they could offer their namaaz.
In Belgium as well, footballers of the faith abound, as it is a way out of poverty for them. Noticeable among them is Adnan Januzaj, who plays for Manchester United. Born in Brussels, Januzaj is the son of Kosovar-Albanian parents who fled the Balkan crisis to escape poverty. His uncle was a member of the Kosovan Liberation Army that fought the Serbs for an independent Islamic Kosovo. Marouane Fellaini, also with Man-U, is a player of Moroccan origin who is a liked by all. So are Moussa Dembele and Nacer Chadli, who both play in Tottenham. It is also rumoured that the Belgian Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s incomparable winger, is a Muslim as well.
These players not only shine for their dribbling or shooting skills, they are notable for their influence over the years on non-Muslim players. For instance, the hairstyle trends started by some of them are now universal among players. So are beards, usually kept by pious Muslims. Even a player like Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of Everton and a devout American Christian, has sported such a beard. Tattoos, an old cultural tradition among Muslims, are also widely prevalent in European football today.
But the influence of Islam in the field of football does not stop here. The habit of raising one’s hands and eyes to the sky—to Allah, the Almighty—on entering the ground or scoring a goal has been adopted by many other players, Christians too. Muslim players are also popular with their teammates. They are liked because they are friendly, trendy and have 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.
The influence is financial as well. Investors from Muslim countries have poured much money into European football. France’s best team, Paris Saint Germain, is owned by a Qatar sheikh who has spent millions of petrodollars to buy some of the continent’s best players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Angel Di Maria. The club of Manchester City, on top of the English Premier League at the moment, 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 Emirates, the airline owned by the government of Dubai. So the influence is financial as well.
‘Football—the world’s most popular sport—has been transformed by the involvement of Muslim players,’ writes James B Lagrand, a British columnist.
However, there is also a darker side to the story. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, for instance, when two French jihadists, Said and 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 players to wear black armbands. But some footballers like Frank Ribery, Bayern Munich’s star, and Samir Nasri stayed conspicuously silent. Others even openly wore T-shirts saying ‘I am not Charlie’.
Observers warn that the influx of Arab money into European football comes with a price. After Qatar Sports Investments, owned by the country’s current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, purchased the French club Paris St Germain (PSG) and turned it into one of the best teams in Europe, there have been accusations that Qatar plays a double game. Says Haras Rafiq, the outreach officer of 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 harbouring extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and around the world.”
In 2012, Real Madrid, the world’s richest football team, removed a cross from its club crest ‘which was offensive to Islam’ to appease one of its main sponsors, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, in particular and the United Arab Emirates, which is building a $1 billion sports tourist resort under the club’s name in Ras Al Khaima, in general.
German teams such as Bayern Munich, the best and richest of the country, have also bowed to such pressure, but this time from their own Muslim players: they accepted 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 other clubs that have Muslim players.
It is whispered too that some Muslim football players do proselytising 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 team of the Indian Super League. Frank Ribery, who was born non-Muslim, converted to Islam years ago under the influence of one of his seniors. There are others famous converts in football: Emmanuel Adebayor, Eric Abidal, of French African origin, Thierry Henri, of Arsenal fame, and Robin Van Persie, a celebrated Dutch footballer now playing in Turkey.
Muslim players also tend not to recognise any authority except Allah’s. In the 2010 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 the players were sent home. Samir Nasri never played again for the French national team and his girlfriend attributed this to racism. ‘But the truth,’ says Jean Druze, ‘is that from this moment on, the French Football federation authorities knew they had a problem with their Muslim players.’ Among the issues was 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 making it mandatory but many players such as Karim Benzema still don’t.
As for the Paris attacks of 13 November that left more than 130 people dead and 300 wounded, the response from the world of football to the carnage has been quite subdued, to say the least. This has shocked many in France and Belgium. Freddy Gray of The Spectator writes: ‘It is not so surprising if the jihadists in Paris were targeting an international football match [France versus Germany at Stade France which three suicide bombers could not enter and blew themselves up 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 the Italian player 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 insulted the Prophet’.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose father is a Bosnian Muslim, had only this to say 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…” It left many observers baffled. Ivorian Yaya Touré, who plays in England, said he felt sorry for the families of the slain, but added that “Muslims now feared reprisals”. As for Zinedine Zidane, he has not uttered even a word in commiseration with those who have suffered even though so many French lives were taken. He even pulled out of a charity match he was supposed to play; it was left to David Beckham to defend him.
Only Vincent Kompany, the captain of Manchester City and a Belgium national, spoke publicly of his opposition to the killings in Paris. He said “that he did not sleep for three days”, especially when he learnt that the attack were planned in his city Brussels. But he faced such a strong backlash, particularly from his Muslim teammates of Manchester City and the Belgium national team who told him “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 that 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 13 November Paris attacks and the earlier Charlie Hebdo killings. The police and governments of both France and Belgium have been clamping down on known Islamic extremists and mosques, and have discovered hundreds of weapons and a lot of explosive material. But, writes Druze, ‘Should there not be some kind of scrutiny on what is happening silently but surely in the world of football?’
Druze cites the example of former Arsenal star Abu Issa Al-Andalusi who joined the IS and was seen in a propaganda video holding an AK-47 and proclaiming holy war against the West. The UK’s Daily Mail has also reported that the German under-17 international Burak Karan, who played alongside such celebrities as Sami Khedira and Kevin-Prince Boateng, was killed while fighting for Al-Qaeda in northern Syria. Even more recently, says the report, ‘Five radicalised footballers from East London who left the UK to join ISIS were in touch with British executioner Jihadi John.’ The signs are ominous.