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Faith and football: How Black Muslims changed the game

The contributions of Black Muslim footballers to the English game – and media coverage of their career

Sanaa Qureshi
29 April 2022, 12.00am
Manchester United's Paul Pogba is one of the leading Black Muslim footballers in the Premier League
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This is an extract from the essay ‘A Parallel History of Black Footballers’ published in ‘A New Formation, How Black Footballers Shaped The Modern Game’, edited by Calum Jacobs and published by Merky books.

Understanding and unpacking the impact of Black Muslim footballers on fans is as much about acknowledging the messiness of memory and fandom as it is recognising how the hyper-white British media and footballing establishment have, through targeting their vitriol at particular individuals, inadvertently built heroes for British Muslims.

Almost everyone I spoke with told me how important Manchester United and France midfielder Paul Pogba had become as a prominent Black Muslim footballer playing in the Premier League precisely because he had been so ostracised for his clothing, hair choices and attitude. His detractors often claim these things impacted his ‘focus’ – a trope often levelled at Black footballers in general.

Tottenham fan Isaaq still remembers watching Manchester City take on United at the Etihad in 2018 via a stream on his phone while he attended a wedding: ‘At half-time, [Graeme] Souness was giving him [Pogba] so much shit and he comes out in the second half and kills it. They only won 3–2 because of him.’

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In this instance, the maligning that took place at the hands of the largely white, largely male football media underscored how, despite their singular achievements within the sport, footballers like Pogba continue to feel like underdogs.

“When you see someone who’s won loads of trophies in Italy and a World Cup still having his seriousness doubted you just think, What more does he have to do?” Isaaq bluntly told me that Pogba should leave United ‘so he can thrive’ without the unfair glare of the English press.

This feeling of being under-appreciated was shared across the interviewees, who saw an element of their experiences in how Pogba had been treated needing to overcome persistent questions about attitude or commitment were littered throughout the conversations. But equally, they revelled in Pogba’s unmistakable brilliance, and the moments of lightness that help to shape him as a whole individual.

Fans who live in Manchester relay stories of Pogba visiting Didsbury Mosque, praying shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim congregation in the local community. This perception of humility is critical in forging connections with the Black Muslim footballers whose lives resonate most deeply with fans.

Sprinkled throughout all of the conversations I had were anecdotes – some personal, some passed on, some now considered legitimate folklore – of footballers practising their faith within the community and how meaningful these instances continue to be.

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