Muslims In Football: Papiss Cisse, Sponsorship And Wonga

Newcastle United is currently in the midst of a very public spat with their Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse over a shirt sponsorship deal with money lending company Wonga.

According to the Guardian, Cisse pulled out of Newcastle United’s pre-season training camp last week after refusing to promote the money lending company for religious reasons. The forward has offered to wear an unbranded shirt or one promoting a charity for the next season. Newcastle are said to have reacted unfavorably to his request, particularly since his Muslim teammates Cheik Tiote and Moussa Sissoko do not appear to share his apprehension with the new shirt logo. It is rumored that Cisse is now to be sold to another club, with several clubs from France and Germany and Russia interested in the powerful striker’s services.

The 2013 – 2014 football season will kick off with nearly 40 Muslims in the English Premier League and English clubs, and the League authorities have had to adapt to accommodate footballers of different faiths.

The Premier League has shown remarkable sensitivity regarding multi faith acceptance and adaptability. Until fairly recently the Man of the Match for a league game was presented with a bottle of champagne as an award at the end of the game. When Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, a devout Muslim, politely declined his award on religious grounds, the game’s administrators sat up and took notice. The Man of the Match is now presented with a small trophy for his achievements, thus showing the willingness of the men in charge to accommodate players and managers of different faiths.

Clubs have also shown high levels of sensitivity. Clubs across the league offer their Muslim players a separate prayer area and shower area if desired. Newcastle United, who until recently had six Muslim first team players, became the first club in the Premier League to open a prayer room, where their Muslim players could pray the requisite five times a day. It is, therefore, surprising that Newcastle is the club that is being pushed to reconsidering their sponsorship agreement with Wonga on religious grounds.

There is no precedence for this in world football. The most widely publicized incident of an athlete refusing to promote a sponsor’s brand is that of South African batsman Hashim Amla. Amla pays a fine in every game he represents South Africa for refusing to wear the Castle Lager logo on his South African kit on the basis of religious grounds. Cricket South Africa were able to negotiate with Castle Lager to ensure that such an arrangement could take place but it seems highly unlikely that Newcastle United will adopt a similar stance in Cisse’s case. It does beg the question, should clubs consider what business their sonsors are in before agreeing a long-term, lucrative sponsorship agreement?

There has been widespread criticism of Newcastle United for entering into the agreement in the first place with fans and local politicians extremely critical of the club for engaging in a sponsorship deal with a company that charges exorbitant rates of interest on its loans. The anger has been barely contained in one of the more disenfranchised parts of Britain. As reported in the Mirror local MP Ian Lavery pledged to send his season tickets back if the deal went through. Should a similar attitude be adopted to companies like Wonga, who Lavery branded, “financial predators who make their money from people suffering from unemployment, low wages and in the greatest financial need”, as there is towards cigarette and alcohol sponsors? The debate is sure to continue.