Aston Villa were drawing nil-nil at home against Manchester City. Sensing a late chance, a point, something, anything, Rémi Garde brought on Rudy Gestede. Having arrived from Blackburn with a reputation for headers, it was a route one substitution that shouldn’t have elicited much of a response. But as he stood on the sideline, Gestede opened his hands, lowered his head and prayed.
Even though the sight of someone whispering quietly with their hands facing the skies was not new, it was an extraordinarily gentle moment captured amidst the routine of last ditch tackles and long balls on a cold and windy night in the Midlands. Gestede, with his arrival on the pitch imminent, took a moment for himself. He may have been making a request, conceding an apology or simply giving thanks; his escaping whispers were not for us. The qualities that were so beautiful about the moment – the calmness, the silence – were also the most startling. An earnest reminder that sometimes the people we put our faith in on matchdays collect all of that up and put it into something bigger. And sometimes we get to see it.
When Mesut Özil arrived at Arsenal in 2013, it took him some time to settle into the Premier League. Or at least that’s how the narrative unfolded. Özil was a luxury player, an extravagance purchased after years of meticulous saving and careful transfer windows. This slight, wide-eyed German of Turkish descent sloped around the pitch, flitting passively in and out of games. He was chastised for not being aggressive enough, for not being present in the way English football typically demands. Moments of brilliance were tempered quickly by disappearances. The one constant throughout this was his dua before games. Head bowed, hands open.
Prayer can be a slow burn. Its effects are not always felt instantly, nor are they supposed to be. Sometimes what we ask for is not what we receive. There remains a resilience in the multitude of ways joy finds its way to us anyway. Özil was perhaps not what that the Arsenal team needed at that time and, as he settled into himself, there were times it felt as though Arsenal weren’t ready for him either. I regularly joked that Özil’s growing table of should-have-been assists were actually a sign of his God-given patience. His worldly struggles, something all Muslims are expected to face in their lives, were his teammates. Although this was said in jest, there still seems no better way to comprehend Özil’s gentle insistence on supplying players like Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott with excellence that they could then duly squander.
In Özil we now have a bulkier player, a physicality that should sate the English fascination with strength and someone who runs. However, some stereotypes persist. In games where Arsenal as a whole have not been incisive enough, Özil’s name has found its way into match reports as an individual who was lacking. But Özil is a team player in the most genuine sense – he might have an achingly delicate touch but his utility, and beauty, is found in making his teammates look better, even when they’re not. His pre-assist assists only work as links in a chain and his ability to pull apart formations is only useful with players to run into the vacant space.
Watching Özil play reminds me to look up, to look behind and to look twice. His passes rely on a vision of the game and of the space surrounding him that is three or four moves ahead, unseeable to most of us whose sight is rooted in the mundane. When Özil is in full flow, it is rapturous but in the quietest way. And if you believe in God, it is not dissimilar to the bounty of blessings we are instructed to seek in nature – the things we may otherwise miss.
It is not only in the mindful artistry that I am able to feel the presence of faith in football, it is also found in Romelu Lukaku’s gestures to the skies after he scores, Steven Pienaar’s undershirt revealing that God is great, Demba Ba’s celebration sajdah (prostration) and every prayer that has been made in anticipation of what is to come. What these footballers have shown me is the fluidity of my own religious education. It is learning to say ma’sha’Allah at the sight of something beautiful, to revel in God’s glory (subhan’Allah), and to praise freely and easily (alhamdulillah). And it is knowing that all of these blessings can be found abundantly in sport.
It was growing up with the Pakistan cricket team that I first encountered what the practice of faith could look like outside of religious buildings and prayer mats and all the ways I could find God in the every day. Prostrations after milestones were a mainstay – celebrations rooted in a remembrance of God. Post-match interviews almost always began with a clumsy but sincere thank you to a higher being, grateful to have the talent to play, to win, to delight, even when they had lost. And so perhaps it was through this lens I came to understand the ritual centering of God in sport as less a sign of religiosity (because how can you ever really know?) and more a desire to spread triumph and the weight of loss.
To return to something other than yourself over and over again was to admit, over and over again, that you were not alone. When a cricketer thanked Allah, or a footballer pointed to the sky after scoring, I was reminded of what we had in common – the imagined community we could both belong to. When you look outside of yourself and choose to root your accomplishments in the holy, you begin to build a home there for others too. And it is in this, the wilful suspension of self, that we are able to stretch open the glory found in collective feeling. Supporting a team can be the most regular and considered way we show up, every week, every matchday, for people we do not know. Being a fan asks us to be steadfast and hopeful in search of joyful moments, of things we can share, and watching footballers weave their faith into ours has broadened the possibility of these.
I once fleetingly read somewhere* that modern art exists on the same plane as religious art, with expressions of divinity revealing themselves through shape and colour in the former. With players like Ozil gracing the stage, it is easy to witness the careful geometry of football, and for it to resonate as modern art, evoking the sacred with every touch and every prayer.
* It has been suggested that it was in Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art but I haven’t completed it yet to be sure.