In the English professional football Premier League, one of the world’s most prestigious and most highly watched sporting competitions, player displays of religious identity is hardly uncommon. Players, particularly of Brazilian heritage, frequently exhibit their Christian faith by making the sign of the cross on the playing field, wearing apparel making direct reference to Jesus, and extolling their pride in their faith on social media. Lately, this trend is seeing a new Abrahamic faith enter onto the soccer field: Islam.
Players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané of Liverpool, N’Golo Kanté of Chelsea, and Mesut Özil of Arsenal have helped make Muslim practices far more visible on and off the field. Salah in particular has played the role of good-will ambassador for Islam in a number of ways. He was named as one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people of 2019, owing in part to his charm and humble way of living (for an international football star). He and teammate Mané attend their local Liverpool mosque together and are involved in local charities. On the field, Salah rarely acts arrogantly when he scores, and his celebrations are usually restrained, sometimes a simple bow to the ground in ritual prostration as Muslims do in mosques around the world. The impact is noticeable.
A team of researchers from Stanford University last year conducted a study in Merseyside, the wider metropolitan borough encompassing Liverpool, on what they termed the “Salah effect”. They argue that Salah’s popularity helped reduce Islamophobic attitudes in the Merseyside area. Since 2017, when Salah was first signed to Liverpool, hate-motivated crimes against Muslims have dropped in Merseyside. Liverpool fans are also less critical toward Islam on social media. One of the newer chants at Liverpool’s home stadium of Anfield goes, “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
Whether these attitudes will remain if Salah were to leave the club is uncertain. Invoking strong identity markets for players can work when things are going well, but can also backfire if the player is having a bad streak of gameplay. Özil quit playing for the German national team due to anti-Turkish racism, saying that for many people he was “a German when we won, an immigrant when we lose”. Players of non-European background in France and Belgium have similar stories. Yet, for millions of Muslims around the world, seeing their coreligionists on-screen affirms that one can be Muslim in a number of ways. It promotes a contrasting image to the violent, irrational, and destructive caricature of Islam frequently pushed by political groups and exploitative media in the non-Muslim world.