FIFA World Cup Salahs, Pogbas to play beside Messis & Neymars -Kazi Mukit and Imam Us Salehin

The frenzy of the FIFA World Cup has already started gaining momentum everywhere and Bangladeshi fans are not sitting idle. In his fullest craze, a 60-year old Bangladeshi farmer from Magura has not only extended the world’s largest German Flag to 5.5 km this year, but also named his two grandsons after Germany’s Michael Ballack and Philip Lahm. Almost everywhere in the country, the flags of favourite teams are hoisted, walls are painted and jerseys of the football giants were at the top of our Eid shopping list. But this year, our football fad is blended with our biggest religious festival, Eid al-Fitr. Thus, our modern-cum-Muslim fans are fasting in the day, while chanting for their favorite teams from evening until midnight. Similarly, diehard fans of Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo are fighting one another, but united in support of the Muslim superstars like Mohamed Salah (Egypt) or Mesut Ozil (Germany). We always find special warmth for the latter group in our subconscious mind. Already the news of the Tunisian goalkeeper, Mouez Hassen, who faked injury during a match so that his teammates could break fast, has gone viral among followers around the world. The rest of the article offers overview of the 11 selected Muslim superstars who will be in the limelight in Russia.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt), also dubbed as ‘Egyptian King’, is arguably the most popular player in this list. The Liverpool striker with his fast spring and fancy footwork won the title of the Player of the Year in the English Premier League in last season (2017/18). But Salah’s fame goes beyond his football skill. His peace loving attitude and celebration of each goal by prostrating himself on the ground has lifted the image of Islam in England where Muslims are the minority and often bigoted. But today because of this Muslim hero, one can hear chants like “If he’s good enough for you…../if he scores another few/then Ill be Muslim too”, and also “He’s sitting in the mosque/that’s where I want to be”. His contribution to his faith and community in England is similar to that of Mohammad Ali in America. Salah, despite his recent injury in the Champion’s league final, is still the key player and the greatest hope for Egypt in the 2018 World Cup.

Mesut Ozil (Germany) is a third-generation Turkish-German superstar and a practicing Muslim. He admitted to a German Newspaper that he recites Al Quran before he goes on the pitch. A video of his was viral lately where he was filmed picking up a piece of bread that was thrown at him by an opposition supporter. Ozil picked the bread, kissed and tapped it on his forehead before placing it by the side of the field. This was his response with respect to his religion, which teaches not to waste food. Due to his agility, technical skill and versatility, Ozil was compared to Zinadene Zidane by the former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. His transfer from Real to Arsnel (at  £42.5 million) made him the most expensive German player of all time. The German fans and fans around the world will look out for this deadly midfielder in Russia.

Paul Pogba (France), the central midfielder of Red Devils is our third pick of this list. Pogba is well known for his creative goal celebration and unique hairstyle. At Under 20-level, he captained France to victory at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World cup and was the best player of the tournament. His transfer to Manchester United in 2016 with £89.3 million was the then world record transfer fee. Between the end of EPL season and beginning of the world cup, he made pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. Fans who follow EPL can often find him saying prayers before every match. Like his predecessor Zinedine Zidane, Paul Pogba has the charm to filch the trophy for his country.

Sadio Mane (Senegal) is a deadly winger who plays alongside Mohamed Salah in Liverpool and both were often seen celebrating goals in prostration. He pursued his career in football despite his father forbade him from playing. Mane is the one who scored Liverpool’s only goal against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final this year. In 2016, he was the most expensive player from Africa when he was transferred to Liverpool for a fee of £34 million. This year in Russia, fans will surely expect Mane to be involved in the majority of the African nation’s goals.

Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia) is the key player for Al Nasser and also Saudi Arabia’s main striker in this world cup. He received the best player in Saudi league twice in a row. Sahlawi has received a three-week training in Manchester United to sharpen his skill ahead of this world cup in Russia. Playing alongside Al Muwallad, he is another Arab player on whom his team will depend largely for their victory.

Mehdi Benatia (Morocco), the 31-year old rock wall in defence is another player to look out for in this World Cup. He was transferred from German powerhouse, Bayern Munich to Juventus F.C last year. Bentai, also a practicing Muslim, is currently one of the best defenders in the world. The Moroccan shield will have a great responsibility in the Group B against Iniesta’s Spain and Ronaldo’s Portugal.

Sardar Azmoun (Iran) from group B is a key goal-scoring machine for his team. Fans in Bangladesh may not have heard of this 23-year old Muslim, considering the fact that he plays in the Russian Premier League for Rubin Kazan. Playing for Iran, he has scored 23 goals in 33 appearances since 2009. This stylish Iranian forward will play a crucial role in Iran’s setup in the attacking role in this world cup.

Xerdan Shaqiri (Switzerland) is the Swiss speedster and a deadly winger who has played in clubs including Bayern Munich, FC Basel and Inter Milan. Shaqiri, born in Yugoslavia, has multiple nationalities including Kosovo and Albania. Having previously played in the World Cup, Shaqiri has the experience to threaten defences in this World Cup too. He is a key man for his national team in the Group E for it to qualify for the next round.

Adil Rami (France), born to Moroccan parents, is another Muslim superstar in this world cup. Currently playing for Sevilla, Rami is a strong commanding central defender playing at the heart of France’s defence. Interestingly, prior to his French debut in 2010, he was offered a chance to play with Moroccan national team at the 2008 African Cup of Nations. But he refused and proffered to represent his origin, Morocco, within the French team. This 6ft 3 inches defender will be a key star for the fans to keep their eyes on.
Sami Khedira (Germany) is a dynamic box to box mid fielder playing for Italian giant Juventus. With over 70 caps for his national team, he was part of the squad, which reached 2010 FIFA world cup semi-final and won the cup in 2014. Born to a Tunisian Father and German mother, Khedira is a key player for Germany in this world cup.

Mauro Fellaini (Belgium), the 30 year old Man U midfielder was born to Moroccan parents and a practicing Muslim. He is very well-known for his huge afro and easy to spot on a football pitch, solely for his hairdo. He also has an identical twin Mansour Fellaini.  Mauro was the first Muslim player to captain Man U under Jose Mourinho. He will be Belgium’s wall in Group G for it to march towards next rounds.
154 Muslim players from 12 teams, across three continents, are playing in the FIFA world cup in Russia this year. Beside the above mentioned eleven, there are also Mousa Dembele (Belgium), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Daler Kuzyaev (Russia), Ahmed Musa (Nigeria), Essam El- Hadary (Egypt) and others who will be equally important players for their respective teams in this world cup.

In Bangladesh, Kabaddi is our de jure national sport. But if an alien lands here and takes a walk in any urban or suburban alleyways, he/she would be swayed to believe football as our national sport. Like past years, the majority of the fans are either supporting Brazil or Argentina. But there is always a soft corner for the Muslim teams and Muslim superstars like Mohamed Salah, Shaqiri, Ozil, Pogba and others. So don’t get surprise if you spot Egypt’s (Mo Salah’s) jersey in display alongside Brazil, Argentina and Germany in Gulistan market or elsewhere.

Writers: The former is a local staff in a Foreign Mission in Dhaka; the latter is an 11th grader and captain of a local football team “Rhodium FC”

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