What a high-profile Muslim footballer means to a Muslim football fan

Written by @Inside7__

Yesterday, Paul Pogba posted an image on his Instagram page of him at the Ka’bah, a sacred site for Muslims where millions from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to and Pogba himself has gone to many times over the years.

He captioned this post:

“Ya Allah !Guide us in the right path, Ya Allah accept our good deeds ,Ya Allah you are the one that forgives so forgive us Amine! May Allah accept our Duas brothers and sisters”.

Pogba’s post on Instagram

Unfortunately, he ended up deleting this post as a result of incessant abuse from both Manchester United fans and other clubs’ fans around the world. This has triggered an angry reaction on social media, with many accounts jumping to Pogba’s defence (both Muslim and non-Muslim).

Personally, I’ve felt a number of emotions, anger particularly. But rather than lose my cool, I’ve decided to write this short piece about just what a Muslim footballer means to me, as a Muslim football fan (and the millions of others like me).

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane praying after scoring

Being a Muslim is special, unique and a very important part of mine and many others’ identities. Unfortunately, Muslims are not often always portrayed in the best way in the West, and many of us have been victims of hate which stems from this portrayal in mainstream media. So when a Muslim footballer scores, plays well and openly embraces their religion, the feeling is both special to us and has an impact on the wider world’s perception of Muslims too.

A 2019 study at Stanford University showed that since Mohamed Salah’s signing (in 2017), hate crimes in Merseyside were reduced by an astonishing 18.9% and Islamophobic tweets from Liverpool fans had halved.

Both he and Sadio Mane are devout Muslims who often go into Sujood after they score, and are open about their religion. They are also widely viewed as two of the best footballers in the world. As a Manchester United fan, it’s rare that you’ll see me root for a Liverpool player, but these guys’ success puts a smile on my face, and that’s a small fraction of the beauty of Islam.

Paul Pogba at the final whistle in the World Cup final

The above image is of Paul Pogba prostrating at the final whistle of the 2018 World Cup final, in which he was the best player on the pitch. Pogba is my favourite footballer, I think pretty much everyone I’ve ever discussed football with knows that, and part of the reason for that is not just because he is a Muslim but because as a person he characterises what Islam is truly about.

Despite the constant character assassination from the football media ever since he returned to Manchester United in 2016, Pogba as a person is a role model for millions of young people out there in the world. He is kind, humble, peaceful, and does a significant amount of charity work.

Those who know or have worked with him have continually waxed lyrical about him, and he does not hide the impact that religion has had upon his life since he took his Shahadah aged 20. As I mentioned earlier, he has gone on pilgrimage to Makkah on a number of occasions, most notably after he won the World Cup.

Most players would go to Dubai, or to a party island or somewhere, but Pogba went to worship his lord, and remember that all of his successes come from him.

“Whatever you have of favor, it is from Allah.”

[Quran 16:53]

Karim Benzema approaching the time for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan

Ramadan in particular is hugely important for Muslims, it is one of the most sacred months of the year. During Ramadan, we fast. In recent years this has been for 18 or even 19 hours and in extreme heat as it has taken place in summer/late spring. Muslim footballers are no exception, they also fast.

You can imagine how challenging this can be as a professional footballer.

But every year, it is inspiring to see how high a level these guys continue to perform at, and truly beautiful to see how these players are facilitated. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp summed this up perfectly in a press conference leading up to the 2019 Champions League final, which came in Ramadan, where he was asked about the fasting of Salah and Mane and responded:

There is no problem with the fast of my players. I respect their religion, they were always wonderful and they offered the best whether they were fasting or not. There are days when Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah came into the dressing room because they were praying. In this life, there are many things more important than football.

To see their fasting embraced by their manager in the build-up to such an important game was a big thing, and in the final itself Salah stepped up in the second minute to score a penalty which sent Liverpool on their way to winning the trophy. Frequently during evening games in Ramadan, we see players break their fast when sunset comes during a break in play, in some competitions, this is even facilitated through water breaks.

Islamophobia in football is rife, and a real issue that doesn’t get spoken about enough, but seeing how fasting Muslim footballers are facilitated is nice and a small step towards conquering this issue.

When Pogba (amongst other Muslim players) receive abuse for their football, it is sad to see as it is not deserved. When he receives abuse for following his religion, it feels like an attack on all Muslims, like it’s not acceptable to follow our faith. Some people speak about the Muslim faith like it’s unimportant when in reality it is one of the most important things in our lives and makes us who we are as people.

Seeing some of the best football players in the world be so open about following our religion is inspiring, and gives us hope that one day Islam and Muslims will be given the respect they truly deserve. Regardless of which team you support, as a Muslim, you’ll always root for other Muslim players, because we’ve seen how much of an impact it can have on changing people’s perception of Islam, and seeing Muslim footballers be open and unapologetic about the religion they follow on top of being great footballers provides us with positive role models to look up to.

On a personal level, Islam and football are both important parts of my life. I’m used to seeing fans of many clubs give Pogba hate, but hate for a religious post shocked me entirely. A football player shouldn’t be forced into deleting such a post because of incessant hate from any fans, let alone from fans of the club they represent.

We all need to do better. And to my fellow Muslims: whilst we’re all angry, try to remember what Islam is about and to show this in our actions at all times. I leave you with this verse from the Qur’an.

Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.

[Quran 41:34]

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