A guest contribution by Riaz Ravat to mark UN World Interfaith Harmony Week.
In February each year, the United Nations marks World Interfaith Harmony Week. The week has grown to become a month with global activities spread throughout the period.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool has been the multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the squad which reflects the international fan base.
Brand ‘Liverpool FC’ owes much to the diverse players who have written their own stories. In the recent FA Cup tie against Cardiff City at Anfield, players from no fewer than 11 different nation states represented the Kopites.
This article showcases four of Liverpool’s players who are proud of their own identities yet have combined to devastating effect as the Reds won the Champions League in 2019, ended the domestic drought in 2020 and are on course for a trophy charge in 2022.
The uniqueness of the club is that when one blends the diversity of all the players with the worldwide fan base, almost every nationality, religion or belief or language is covered. This article focuses on the Christian–Muslim quartet of Roberto ‘Bobby’ Firmino, Alisson Becker, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Liverpool players were the first in the league to ‘take the knee’. The symbol on the halfway line at Anfield during a training session set the scene for football’s wider missive about the need for equality and social justice.
Klopp’s squad contains a number of champions both on and off the pitch. The line-up of 2022 compared to their predecessors the last time Liverpool won the league under Kenny Dalglish in 1990, could not be more illustrative about how society has changed.
At the start of the last decade of the last century, who would have imagined that the next time Liverpool would be domestic kings, an Egyptian by the name Mohamed would be instrumental in that success? The diversity of this Liverpool has been pivotal on and off the pitch.
Mo Salah has moved many mountains since arriving at Anfield – if there is a record to break, Mo will target it.
His running down the wing has torn apart the club’s goals per games ratio and transcended Liverpool’s fanbase into a different terrain.
The Egyptian arrived in 2017 with a forgetful previous stint in English football. The Liverpool Mo Salah is unrecognisable from the Chelsea Mo Salah who struggled to get going.
Since joining Liverpool, Salah has elevated himself in a relatively short space of time into the club’s ‘all-time’ best 11. Based on games, goals and goal assists – his statistics are unparalleled. However, as a Muslim, Salah knows only too well the other responsibilities he carries on his shoulders.
Sport has the power to evade boundaries and with hostility against Muslims on the rise, the phenomenon of Salah has become an antidote to hate.
In 2019, research by Stanford University found a 19% drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes on Merseyside in the period since Salah signed for the Reds. No other offence had a comparable drop in the same timeframe, while anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans fell by 53%.
The golden boot-winning striker who often celebrates his goals with a prostration was praised by Stanford University because “positive exposure to outgroup role models can reveal new information that humanises the outgroup writ large.”
Salah does not speak too regularly but when he does, one needs to take note. In April 2019, he used the platform of Time magazine to argue that women must be treated better in the Middle East. A call which the wider world should heed too.
Salah may have missed out on the Ballon d’Or in 2021 and the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in 2022 but he has shown that adversity merely serves to drive him further as he exorcised the Champions League defeat in Kyiv in 2018 with victory a year later in Madrid.
In October 2020 it was reported that following a victory over Arsenal, Salah had visited a petrol station outside Anfield when he noticed a group of men harassing a homeless individual. Salah admonished them and handed some cash to the victim. A socially conscious Salah was not prepared to stand idly by.
In footballing terms, ‘Super’ Sadio Mane is a manager’s dream. Tough and tenacious, the Senegalese Muslim attracts comparatively mild attention in comparison to Salah but Liverpool loyalists know only too well the grit and graft the 2019 African Footballer of the Year and 2022 AFCON champion puts in week in, week out.
In the 2019-20 season, Mane’s goals were the difference in many close contests – Norwich City away when he scored after coming on as a substitute being one of many pivotal goals he has scored for the club at the highest level in the Premier League and Champions League.
Mane’s football career prior to joining Liverpool was one of much promise but considerable erraticism. Klopp himself conceded at the club press conference before the 2019-20 Premier League away game at Brighton & Hove Albion, “He came as a young boy and he grew up, matured here”. Klopp added, “The level he performs at is unbelievable. He helps us massively. He is a complete player, offensively and defensively he works hard, he is really quick.”
Mane has not forgotten his roots. For example, in his home village of Bambali in Senegal, he has contributed to building a hospital. Equally, only hours after scoring and leading Liverpool to victory against Leicester City in 2018, video footage emerged of him cleaning the toilets at his local mosque on Merseyside.
Before the arrival of Diogo ‘Dio-goal’ Jota, Liverpool’s attacking ‘Holy Trinity’ was made complete by Roberto ‘Bobby’ Firmino. The trio has plundered over 250 goals as a partnership which is among the world’s most feared.
Brazilian Firmino is the most versatile forward in world football. If he is not scoring, he is most certainly setting up or biting away at the ankles of the opposition to retrieve the ball.
Bobby has been fundamental to Klopp’s philosophy by setting traps for the opposition and swarming them with his supporting act.
In January 2020, in an emotional ceremony, Bobby was baptised with fellow countrymen Fabinho and Alisson in attendance. According to Premier Christian News, Firmino declared, “I gave you my failures and the victories I will give you too. My greatest title is Your Love Jesus!”
Firmino was born in Trapiche da Barra. According to BBC Sport online,“ a poor neighbourhood squeezed between a polluted lake and a poverty-stricken favela” where violence is rife.
A childhood friend remarked, “Even when he didn’t have a ball, he’d be doing keepie-ups with an orange.”
For Firmino, football was the passport out of poverty. Like his teammates, he remains dedicated to his roots with the donation of food hampers, toys and even paying a local family’s medical bills examples of his generosity.
At the other end of the pitch and in between the sticks, stands Alisson Becker. In contrast to Firmino, Alisson was born into a middle-class family with a deep dedication to Christianity.
A transformative goalkeeper and a monumental presence to get past, Alisson is always looking to hit teams on the break and is the epitome of the ‘Sweeper-Keeper’. Burnley, Fulham and Manchester United can testify for the times when Alisson was instrumental in setting up attacks leading to goals.
In an abnormal, pandemic-influenced 2020-21 Premier League season, this extraordinary goalkeeper accomplished a ‘Miracle in the Midlands’. An injury-ravaged season saw Liverpool unable to put up an effective title defence plus the situation was compounded by Champions League qualification which was hanging by the thinnest of threads as the Reds sat outside the top four spots for most of the final few months of the season.
With Liverpool on equal terms away to West Bromwich Albion in the 95th minute and a referee about to blow his whistle, Alisson charged forward to connect his head brilliantly to a Trent Alexander Arnold corner which flew into the net. It was this goal that provided the impetus to eventually finish the season in third place and secure top-level European qualification. How stories are written.
A few months before, Alisson tragically lost his father following an accident in Brazil. His goal – the first goalkeeper in Premier League history to score a winner was dedicated to his late father. It is a moment that will be etched in Liverpool’s and indeed Premier League history forever.
In the post-match interview, Alisson said, “Football is my life…I hope my father was there to see it with God on his side celebrating”. It was one moment of many moments for this wondrous football club.
Like Salah, Alisson is another record-breaker. The ‘clean sheet King’ and former Goalkeeper of the Year winner literally wears his faith. Often seen pointing to the sky after a decisive victory who famously wore a ‘Cross = Love’ t-shirt after the Champions League win in 2019, Alisson has also pioneered global health and well-being messages as a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Health Promotion.
Alisson combines fortitude with faith. According to Evangelical Focus Europe, he said in 2019 that “If you want to be a great keeper, you need to work very hard. That’s what I do. You need to be very focused on football and I think faith is important, too. If you believe in God, you know you have to do your best on the pitch and put love into everything you do in life.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that with these levels of religious adherence it would manifest itself in difficulties on the pitch or in the dressing room – far from it. If we need evidence, what better than Alisson’s reaction when he famously set Salah on his way to score the nerve-settling victory over arch-rivals Manchester United at Anfield in 2019. Alisson sprinted the length of the pitch to embrace Salah – showing cross and crescent in collective celebration.
At the helm of this relentless Red machine sits the mesmeric manager, Jurgen Klopp, a self-professed admirer of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. Klopp is a proud Christian who donates a portion of his salary to the Common Goal movement, which supports global youth football development.
Klopp has referenced the impact of his faith upon creating an open environment and culture for all at Liverpool. He does this not in spite of being Christian but because he is Christian.
At the start of the 2019-20 title-winning season, Klopp wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune where he said, “I have seen what a little round ball can do for the lives of so many of my players. The personal journeys of players like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and so many of my boys are absolutely incredible. The difficulties I faced as a young man in Germany were nothing compared to what they had to overcome. There were so many moments when they could’ve easily given up, but they refused to quit.” Klopp added, “They’re not gods. They just simply never gave up on their dream.”
It is this unity against adversity and purpose over ideology that provides a lesson for all of humanity. Many footballers have endured journeys similar to those of Firmino, Salah and Mane. The stories of all three players who as children engineered efforts to escape from their homes to go and play football has endeared them to Liverpool fans.
Whilst many players have suffered disadvantage and poverty in their upbringing, many will not have been fortunate enough to win the biggest club trophies in world football. This is why it is vital for the global fan base to recognise and appreciate that when Salah, Mane, Alisson, Firmino and others such as Van Dijk, Wijnaldum and Robertson carry out acts of generosity, they are connecting the present with their past.
Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Atheist, Jewish or any other belief, Liverpool FC embodies global values of respect and acceptance – the United Nations is very much in evidence at Anfield.
You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Riaz Ravat is a member of Liverpool FC’s Equality & Diversity Fan Forum and Secretary General of Baraza – an international charity dedicated to promoting tolerance. He writes in a personal capacity.