Islam Conquers European Football
by Soeren Kern
The top-ranked football team in Spain, Real Madrid, has removed a Christian cross from its official logo as a way to strengthen its fan base among Muslims in Europe and the Middle East.
According to Spain's top sports newspaper, Marca, the change was made to "avoid any form of confusion or misinterpretation in a region where the majority of the population is Muslim."
Real Madrid says its decision to remove the cross from its logo (see image here) is simply a cost of doing business in a globalized world. But critics say the move represents yet another erosion of European culture and tradition in the face of encroaching Islam.
The cross controversy comes as Real Madrid begins to build a $1 billion sports tourist resort in the United Arab Emirates. The foundation stone for the 50 hectare Real Madrid Resort Island was laid in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah on March 29; the complex is scheduled to open in January 2015.
Real Madrid says its resort island will be the first theme park on an artificial island to combine tourism and sports, and it will be the first recreational tourism complex built under the Real Madrid trademark. The complex will include a 450-room luxury hotel, luxury villas, a sporting harbor, and the world's first-ever football stadium that is open to the sea.
According to Real Madrid, "This is a decisive and strategic step that will enhance the strength of this institution in the Middle East and Asia, a key region in which the passion for this club has been apparent. Real Madrid and the Government of Ras al-Khaimah want to transmit the passion of Real Madrid and what it means throughout the world."
As part of the agreement, however, the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr al Qasimi, required Real Madrid to remove the cross from the crown on its logo for all promotional materials related to the resort island. The president of Real Madrid, Florentino Pérez, dutifully complied.
The cross was first to Real Madrid's logo in 1920, when King Alfonso XIII granted the club his royal patronage. The word Real is Spanish for royal, and the cross still forms an integral part of the coat of arms of the King of Spain.
To be sure, Real Madrid is not the first Spanish football club to remove a "religiously incorrect" cross from its logo in an effort to appease Muslim sensibilities. Some observers, in fact, say Real Madrid's move is part of a concerted effort to prevent a rival football team in Barcelona from winning over the Middle East.
FC Barcelona recently signed a five-year €150 million ($200 million) shirt sponsorship deal with the Doha-based Qatar Foundation, a so-called charitable trust that has been accused by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo of providing funding to the extremist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an advocate of terrorism, wife beating and murderous anti-Semitism. The agreement permits the Qatar Foundation to place its logo on FC Barcelona's official team shirt.
In addition to earning €30 million per season, the agreement has enabled FC Barcelona -- which claims to be "the undisputed brand leader in world football" -- to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.
FC Barcelona's public relations efforts in the Muslim world have not been without controversy. Like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona has a cross in its official logo. But after Saudi Arabia complained that the so-called Cruz de San Jorge -- a red and white cross that forms an integral part of FC Barcelona's logo -- was offensive to Islam because it evokes memories of the medieval Crusades, the horizontal line (and thus the offending cross) was removed from all FC Barcelona shirts sold in the Middle East.
Football clubs in Italy have also had run-ins with Muslim fashion police. In Milan, for example, the football team Inter Milan was sued by a Turkish lawyer named Baris Kaska. He filed a complaint with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) against Inter Milan after the team wore shirts with a "Crusader-style" red cross that Kaska alleged was "offensive to Muslim sensibilities."
The shirt's design -- to mark the 100th anniversary of the club -- included a big red cross on a white background, a symbol of the city of Milan. But Muslims said the emblem reminded them of the Knights Templar, which Kaska said symbolized "Western racist superiority over Islam."
In an interview with the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia, Kaska said Inter Milan had "manifested in the most explicit manner the superiority of one religion over another." He also said that Inter should be "heavily fined for displaying an offensive symbol."
In neighboring Germany, the Gelsenkirchen-based FC Schalke 04, which plays in Germany's top league, the Bundesliga, asked an Islam expert to consider whether the team's anthem is insulting to Muslims.
The third verse of the anthem, which is titled "Blue and White, How I Love You," contains the words: "Mohammed was a prophet who understood nothing about football. But of all the lovely colors he chose [Schalke's] blue and white."
Although the song was written in 1924, the football team began receiving complaints -- hundreds of them -- after a Turkish newspaper reported that the song is insulting to Mohammed. Muslims are now demanding that the offending line be struck from the song, which is chanted by Schalke's fans before every match.
Elsewhere in Germany, the German Central Council of Muslims issued a fatwa (religious ruling) stating that Muslim football players are not required to fast during the month of Ramadan.
The ruling was issued after the German football club FSV Frankfurt issued an official warning to three of their players for fasting and failing to tell their manager. The club said fasting harms the performance of its players.
In France, the referee of a woman's football match on March 18 in the southern French city of Narbonne refused to officiate the game when players for one of the teams took to the pitch wearing Muslim headscarves. The incident involved players from Petit-Bard Montpellier, who had been due to play Narbonne in a regional promotional tie.
The international governing body of football, known as FIFA, banned players from wearing the Islamic headscarf, also known as the hijab, in 2007, saying it was unsafe. But on March 3, FIFA accepted in principal that female footballers could wear headscarves when playing in official competitions.
The rule change, instigated by the brother of the King of Jordan, Ali bin al-Hussein who is also FIFA vice president, is due to come into effect on July 2.
FIFA secretary general, Jerome Vacke, says al-Hussein successfully convinced FIFA that the hijab is a cultural rather than a religious symbol, and that the rule change will allow women all over the world to play football. But the change has angered many Europeans, including some feminist groups, who say the Muslim headscarf is a sign of "male domination."
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Parisien, Asma Guenifi, the director of a women's rights group called Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, said the rule change is "a total regression." She added: "I think FIFA is influenced by intense lobbying from rich Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar."