With seven Muslim and over dozen black players, will French national team’s World Cup glory heal country’s racial wounds?

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“If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim too…He’s sitting in the mosque/That’s where I want to be.”

These lines have now become a part of anthem among the Liverpool Football Club fans in England ever since Egyptian striker Mohammad Salah joined the Merseyside team. This is a remarkable change in attitude by English fans towards Muslims in light of how, only few years ago, the same group of people had called a couple of Muslim fans offering namaz inside the stadium during a match a ‘disgrace.’

On 8 March 2014, a photo of two Muslim football fans praying during Liverpool FC’s FA Cup clash against Blackburn Rovers had gone viral. One of the Liverpool fans had posted the photo (see below) with the hashtag #disgrace to display his disgust for Muslims and their religious practices. Now four years down the line, the entire group of Liverpool fans want to convert to Islam because of Mo Salah, as he’s popularly known.

That’s how football is healing the wounds of bitter race relations in England, which has historically faced its own share of awful racism in the game. Such is the acceptance to Islam and Muslims that top clubs of English Premier League these days routinely wish their fans Ramadan and Eid Mubarak marking the two of the most important occasions for Muslims. They include Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool among others.

France’s World Cup victory

While Muslim and black footballers from outside UK may have contributed significantly in positively impacting the race relations in England, the same can’t be said about the country’s next-door-neighbour France. Islamophobia and racist attitude towards the country’s black and Muslim population continue to be a huge social malaise plaguing the French society.

Consider this. Seven members of the World Cup winning French football team are Muslims. They include Adil Rami, Djibril Sidibé, Benjamin Mendy, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Nabil Fekir and Ousmane Dembélé. This World Cup’s 19-year-old hero, Kylian Mbappé, too has a Muslim mother. Mbappé was awarded the best young player of this World Cup and is already being compared to the legendary Pele.

Beyond being hard-working, community-minded and committed to peace, Pogba and other Muslim players in the French team are devout Muslims. Many of them recently went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and are often seen celebrating every goal by prostrating themselves on the ground. In fact, the photo of Pogba praying before the start of the World Cup final match had gone viral.

Most of these heroes of the French team come from the downtrodden area outside Parisian suburbs, also known in French as banlieue. A recent report by London’s Guardian newspaper said that the unemployment and poverty here remained higher than elsewhere in France, and many young people faced rampant marginalisation and joblessness because of their address, skin colour or their parents’ immigrant roots.

Pogba praying before the final match

Such has been the concern on racism that even President Emmanuel Macron was forced to once describe the discrimination and inequality here as a kind of “house arrest.” Other have compared the situation here to that of the Apartheid era of South Africa.

France in general and Paris in particular has often received global attention for its Islamophobia too. Whether it’s Charlie Hebdo’s obsession to vilify and mock Islam in the name of creative freedom or the French government’s decision to ban burqa, France has often been viewed as a country, which has had a problem with its Muslim population.

The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis recently wrote in her superb analysis that in 1998, when France won the first World Cup, thanks to two crucial goals by their Muslim player, Zinedine Zidane, this did not significantly help improve the French society’s attitude towards Muslims. In fact, the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen had then complained of too many black people in the French football squad . His right-wing party even made it to the final round of the 2002 presidential election. In last year’s presidential election his daughter, Marine Le Pen, won more than 10 million votes, the best ever result for the Front National, now the Rassemblement National.

Chrisafis, in her analysis, hopes that the fact that during this World Cup Mbappé has been hailed as a national hero of diversity, this may help bridge the widening gap between Paris and its suburbs.

Another commentary in The Nation website concludes that Muslims in France see the discriminatory attitude towards them as an inevitable outcome of the decades of negative media coverage, exacerbated by the climate of suspicion and hysteria that reigned since 2015. Although the spike in hate crimes against Muslims that followed the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo may have subsided, a national fixation with Islam endures.

American author Khaled Beydoun, who’s extensively written on Islamophobia, spoke for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslim population, when he tweeted this on Sunday night, “Dear France, Congratulations on winning the  80% of your team is African, cut out the racism and xenophobia. 50% of your team are Muslims, cut out the Islamophobia. Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup, now deliver them justice.”

Let’s hope that the seven Muslim and 80% black players of the World Cup winning French team has the same effect on the French society’s attitude towards the country’s racial minority population in the same way Mo Salah had on the population of Liverpool in England.