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Never walking alone: the poster boys for public faith

Never walking alone: the poster boys for public faith

Liverpool Football Club and its star player Mo Salah are normalising religious faith in the world of football, writes Hannah Rich. 04/06/2019

If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.’ sing the fans on the Kop about Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool midfielder. ‘If he’s sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want to be.‘ goes another variation. It may be an affectionately flippant chant from the terraces, but it reflects the wider conversion of sorts that Salah has led among the Anfield faithful.

A study from Stanford University has found that levels of Islamophobia among Liverpool fans, and on Merseyside more generally, have decreased relative to other countries and fan bases. In particular, rates of Islamophobic tweets by fans of the club halved following Salah’s signing in 2017, compared to fans of other clubs in the top flight of English football.

While reports of anti–Muslim hate crime rose by 26% nationally in 2018, the Stanford study finds that the rate of similar attacks fell by 19% in the Merseyside area. Researchers suggest that this is because of an increased familiarity with positive Muslim figures and, in particular, Mo Salah. It is difficult, it seems, to consider as ‘other’ a group of people which includes your star player.

Salah’s devout Muslim faith has become simultaneously the most and least interesting fact about him. He is not the only prominent Muslim in the Premier League, nor even the only one in the Liverpool squad. However, it is his public expression of what it means to practice the Islamic faith, combined with his footballing success and unassumingly likeable nature, that is credited especially with increasingly positive understandings of Islam among Liverpool supporters – the “Mo Salah effect,” as the Stanford researchers call it.

For the second year in a row, media coverage in the run up to the 2019 Champions League final mentioned only in passing that the match fell during Ramadan and that Muslim players might therefore be fasting. Midway through the first half of Saturday night’s match, at sundown in Madrid, Mo Salah broke his fast inconspicuously with a bottle of water on the pitch.

The Egyptian forward represents a public face of Islam which sits in stark contrast with many contemporary media portrayals of Muslims. His characteristic goal celebration in which he kneels on the pitch to perform sujud – the Islamic act of thanksgiving to Allah – has been immortalised in football computer games. Comedian John Oliver recently described him as ‘a better human being than he is a football player and he’s one of the best football players in the world.’ Salah has spoken about his support for women’s equality and the need for cultural change in the way women are viewed in the Middle East. His toddler daughter delighted the crowd at Anfield when she scored a goal in front of the Kop on the last day of the season, before being scooped up and hugged by her hijab–wearing mother. She is named after the holy city of Mecca.

That these are all details rather than the story itself is testament to a normalisation of religious faith among players and fans to which Salah has contributed.

This phenomenon is not limited to Mo Salah and Islam. At full time in Saturday’s final, Liverpool’s Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson – a practicing Catholic – took his jersey off to reveal a vest decorated with hand drawn symbols proclaiming, ‘cross equals love’. He subsequently posted a photo of himself holding the Champions League trophy aloft and looking to the sky, with the caption ‘God is love’.

The Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has frequently discussed his Christian faith in public and in media interviews. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in his native Germany, he took on the role of Reformationsbotschafter or ‘reformation ambassador’ in a publicity campaign for the Bible in which he cited Martin Luther as one of his role models:

“Luther fought for faith and justice, so people could live their faith in a mature way and without fear… I like Luther because he took the path of the less privileged on the margins. He risked a great deal, so we could have a positive image of God: the loving god in whom I believe, who welcomes everyone regardless of race, background or education.”

This welcome of everyone, irrespective of background, characterises the spirit surrounding Klopp’s Champions League winning side. If Jürgen Klopp is an ambassador for the reformation, then his team are ambassadors for the embracing of a deeply personal faith in public life.


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Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich

Posted 4 June 2019

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