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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Footballer Mo Salah is tackling Islamophobia head-on

The Egyptian superstar's popularity has been praised by Muslim leaders for helping kick racism out of sport

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah prostrates on the pitch after scoring against Bournemouth this month. Anthony Devlin / PA / AP
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah prostrates on the pitch after scoring against Bournemouth this month. Anthony Devlin / PA / AP

After each of his 31 goals in the English Premier League this season, Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah has performed the sujood, prostrating in Muslim prayer and bowing his head to the hallowed turf. On Sunday the “Egyptian king” added the esteemed Professional Footballers' Association player of the year award – conferred by his fellow players – to a host of accolades that includes the 2017 African footballer of the year. The award is well-deserved after an astonishing season. In a BBC poll this month, 76 per cent of voters chose Salah as their player of the year.

But success on the field is just half the story for Salah, who has unwittingly sparked a conversation within a sport that is no stranger to prejudice. In the 1970s and 1980s, football stadiums reverberated with racist chants aimed at black and minority players. But in recent years, Islamophobia has proliferated in the UK, stoked by right-wing politicians, media commentators and online trolls. It comes against a backdrop of rising hatred in football, with 282 incidences of abuse recorded last year by football’s Kick It Out campaign – a rise of 59 per cent on the previous season.

But a football chant inspired by Salah and sung on the terraces by Liverpool fans shows a tolerance that is in short supply. “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too,” they bellow. Could the chant be symbolic of changing attitudes? Salah’s mass following has been praised by Muslim leaders and organisations such as Faith Matters for tackling Islamophobia. Although violence has intermittently infested British football, the warmth with which he has been embraced is symptomatic of sport’s capacity to unite as well as divide.

At the age of 25, Salah is already an impressive role model for youngsters across the world, not least in his small hometown of Nagrig, where he is adored. Like many Muslim footballers, including Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, he is known for donating much of his salary to charitable projects in his home country. He might not be able to singlehandedly beat an apparent rise of Islamophobia on the terraces, nor has the focus on his faith rather than his footballing ability come at his beckoning. But there is little doubt his extraordinary talent is building bridges, not walls.

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