Since a tweet in 2015 caused uproar at the sight of two praying fans in an Anfield stairwell during a Liverpool match, English football has shown much progress in accommodating religious needs of Muslim players and fans.
This article reveals, through the role of chants, the growth of prayer rooms in the Premier League and the case study of Blackburn Rovers, and explores the question of how did traditional English football become more inclusive and open to Muslim believers in the last decade. It also shows well how the game of football is not only loved for the game itself, but also can be embraced as a way to bring communities together.
What if you are as a Muslim attending a game, and the window for praying falls during a match? This happened to Liverpool fan Rahat during 2022 Ramadan, who was delighted to get escorted to the prayer room outside the ground by stewards during the Liverpool FC vs Manchester United game on 19 april 2022 in Anfield Stadium. On Twitter he announced; “I’ve genuinely never met such helpful and respectful stewards like this and I feel they should be appreciated especially when they respect something so important as religion to someone like me.”
The fan expressed his gratitude for being escorted by a steward to a faith room, where they waited for him until he was done to bring him back to his seat, which would otherwise not have been possible for him to return to. His appreciation tweet went viral after the match, with lots of positive responses also from fans supporting other clubs.
A few years before, in 2015, the situation was far apart. In that year a tweet also went viral from a Liverpool fan, but in a negative way. Back then, a fan shared a photo, mentioning #disgrace when two Muslims were praying in the stairway during the match Liverpool vs Blackburn Rovers for the FA cup. The Liverpool fan was getting a lot of negative responses, which forced him to delete the tweet afterwards. Meanwhile, the Muslims in the picture were sad that their religious practice had been framed as a disgrace. They said to the Liverpool Echo:
Education is key to stopping things like this from happening. Maybe the man who took the photo has not come across Muslims before who have explained the significance of prayer.“I would be quite happy to meet with him to explain why we pray and when it needs to be done.
Religious diversity in the Premier League
Since the incident in Anfield onwards Muslim players and fans have increasingly become accommodated in their religious needs in the Premier League. With dozens of football players with Islamic backgrounds and many Muslims living in the UK, this seems logical. The fact that many English football clubs and stadiums are affiliated with Arabic sponsors like Etihad Airways or Emirates of course also have a role in this, but also iconic players with Muslim faith who are under contract at these clubs. Mohammed Salah, playing at Liverpool since 2017 has become such an important icon in the positive framing of Muslims. He has been awarded as best player of the Premier League and won the African Football Player of the Year Award twice. Liverpool fans have different songs for him, in which one of those they chant:
if he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, I ll be a Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, Sitting in the Mosque, that’s where I wanna be.
This ‘Mo Salah song’ is from time to time passionately sung by many English fans in and outside the pitch.
But it is not only role models like Mo Salah creating more familiarity and openness towards Muslim needs in Football. In 2015 newspaper the Guardian inquired which clubs were offering multi faith spaces in their stadium to players and fans, as was then the case for Arsenal, Chrystal Palace, Tottenham and Newcastle United. Other clubs responded to be open to accommodate fan requests for multi faith rooms when needed. “Premier League clubs are missing out, if they don’t reach out to engage their local communities both in support terms and commercially.” A diversity and equality advisor of the English Football Association said in 2015 to the Guardian. “Clubs as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City have understood this very well and play a leading role in the growing understanding towards Muslim faith by offering facilities or support. Another example of the shift towards more inclusion of Muslim faith in English Football, is that the Premier League also employs Muslim Chaplains to support clubs and Muslim players with questions and information about which Islamic rules apply for football players at what moment, e.g. during Ramadan.
Nevertheless, all these developments in a traditional and conservative English sport, are a hopeful sign that English football culture is opening up and becoming more inclusive towards people from different backgrounds. And this is hopeful because it could in the end create a more diverse English mainstream culture in general, where people with other faith backgrounds are included too. On the other hand, it is not only English clubs and fans opening up to other perspectives. Integration in the mainstream is a two way street, as a group of Muslim students in Blackburn show when passionately cheering for Harry Kane when he scored for England the winning goal in the semi-finals during Euro2020.
Blackburn Rovers: Bringing communities together
Another great frontrunner in inclusion and diversity within English Football is Blackburn Rovers, currently playing in the English Championship (2nd division).
The City of Blackburn has, just like London, one of the biggest Muslim communities in England and knows some of the tensions and integration challenges that causes in a (local) society. The football club Blackburn Rovers, originated in 1875 and founder of the English Football League, sees it as its mission to play an important role to bring communities together in their Ewood Park stadium, and to make sure everyone is included and treated equally.
We are committed to using football and the opportunity to watch football as a means of bringing communities together. We believe we are making Ewood Park a place where anyone can come to be safe, be themselves and be part of the local football club. And we’ll never stop doing that. This goes beyond football; the goal is to make Blackburn a more harmonious and prosperous place to live.
Blackburn is putting proof to the pudding, by being the first premier league club to host an Islamic Eid Day prayer on the pitch. During this day in May 2022 thousands of Muslims entered the pitch and prayed together. Similar to the experience of Liverpool fan Rahat, in 2021 Blackburn already offered the opportunity to all Muslim supporters who needed to pray during the second half of their match that night, to ask stewards to be escorted to the multi-faith room in the stadium. In April 2022 their inclusive approach was recognised by awarding them the EFL Diversity Award, as they had been able as foundation, to take more than 2500 kids from the local community to the stadium in the last years.
Of course integration is never an easy story and not every societal challenge is simply solved by singing songs to players with Muslim religion. But all those steps together do help open up the mainstream to become more inclusive towards various religions, and in this particular case creating more understanding towards Muslim faith.
Questions that this article could raise are:
How is your favourite club accommodating the needs of religion of its players and fans?
Do you think it is important for a club to accommodate all religious needs of fans and players?
Does education help you think, like the Muslim Chaplains organise in the Premier League?
Should a club take responsibility for that, or is religion a private undertaking?
What role should clubs have in driving inclusion and diversity in a broader sense for the local communities?
And lastly hypothetically, if football clubs were driven mainly by commercial motives when accommodating religious needs, e.g. providing a prayer room, would that be a bad thing?