Cut through the bigotry of a vocal minority, and there are some pretty uplifting football chants to be heard in England nowadays. Particularly popular at Liverpool is one dedicated to an Arab striker.
It contains the lines: “If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim too,” and ends with the words: “He’s sitting in the mosque/That’s where I want to be.”
Those who revere “Egyptian King” Mohamed Salah – the subject of the song – are not just paying tribute to arguably the best player in the Premier League at the moment. They’re also adhering to a distinctly British tradition of tolerance and respect. This should be cause for immense national pride.
Before hatred of Islam became an obsession among high-profile rabble-rousers and their followers, it was black players who had to put up with racism. Febrile stadium atmospheres turned poisonous, with groups such as the National Front recruiting at games. Xenophobic ditties belted out in the 1970s and 1980s infamously included: “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack/Send the bastards back.”
What changed was the emergence of men such as Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromwich Albion and England forward born in French Guiana. He was part of a generation of non-white players who revolutionised not only the game, but attitudes across the country. Regis, who died in January, aged 59, would never have claimed that prejudice had been wiped out, but with so many charismatic stars just like him, hatred based on skin colour was rendered evil, and embarrassing.
Nowadays the hate-mongers who seek to warp majority opinion tend to focus on religion. And they are by no means found only at football grounds; politicians and authors, mainstream media commentators and online trolls all get involved.
They particularly despise Muslims, doing what they can to link 1.8 billion people worldwide with every crime they can think of, and terrorism in particular. There have been calls for anyone associated with Islam to be interned or deported and – in at least one case – for them to become the victims of a “final solution”, just as Jews were during the Holocaust. In the case of young Muslim men, they are caricatured as potential killers, ready to take up arms for barbaric groups that corrupt one of the world’s three great monotheistic faiths to their own ends.
In fact, Salah is a fairly typical Muslim. Beyond being hard-working, community-minded and committed to peace in his home country and abroad – he prays devoutly with team-mates Sadio Mané and Emre Can, celebrating every goal by prostrating himself on the ground.
Muslims at Manchester United include Paul Pogba, signed in 2016 for a then record transfer fee of almost £90m. Like his fellow Muslims, he is well-known for donating much of his huge salary to charity. It is the same for Riyad Mahrez – who helped Leicester to win the League in 2016 – and N’Golo Kanté, his old team-mate, who is now at current champions Chelsea. At Arsenal there’s Mesut Özil, at Manchester City Yaya Touré, Mamadou Sakho at Crystal Palace, Islam Slimani at Newcastle … the list goes on and on.
In turn, those who might have seen Muslims as inward-looking and awkwardly conservative are changing their opinion. “Cool” is an overused word, but indisputably stylish sportsmen are having a profound effect on mass perceptions.
They are certainly considered trendsetters who can thrill and inspire by shining in a multibillion-pound industry that has huge influence. Some show off earrings, tattoos, imaginative hairstyles and all the other accoutrements that appeal to their millions of social media devotees, but they also post images of themselves reading the Qur’an on the team coach, or posing in Mecca on their Hajj pilgrimage.
This naturally infuriates the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), a Muslim-hate organisation which imagines that supporters have not moved on from the days when players with dark skins had bananas, monkey chants and the N-word hurled at them from crumbling terraces.
The FLA frequently joins forces with equally repugnant mobs such as the English Defence League, which was originally modelled on the football hooligan “firms”. It affects a perverse loyalty to the British armed forces, yet its members rack up criminal convictions and jail time for various offences, many linked to extreme violence. Meanwhile, all propagate the myth that only one religion can produce antisocial extremists. They completely ignore terrorist murders carried out by radicalised white men just like themselves, for example, preferring to spread collective guilt against Muslims at every opportunity.
Such behaviour is as divisive as it is dangerous, but now more and more of these racists are being called out – not least by some of the most progressive football fans in the world.