Newcastle United put in a dilemma by Papiss Cisse’s refusal to wear sponsor’s logo
Critics believe striker’s stance is based on his real intentions of leaving club
Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United. Photograph: Paul Thomas/Getty Images
In Sedhiou, southern Senegal, Papiss Cisse is very much the local hero. The one time teenage African ambulance driver turned Premier League striker invests a significant percentage of the riches he earns at Newcastle United into transforming lives among the remote, small-town, religiously devout community of his youth.
A brand new ambulance is being supplied to transport seriously ill patients on the five-hour journey for advanced medical treatment in the capital, Dakar, while up-to-date x-ray and scanning equipment has been installed at the local hospital.
Established a charity
Then there is the new health information centre, the new football academy and the new mosque. Cisse, who returns to his childhood home at every opportunity, spending more than a month there earlier this summer, is helping to fund the lot and has established a charity Friends of Sedhiou. In Senegal, almost everyone wants to shake his hand.
Meanwhile at St James’ Park, the 28-year-old provokes contrasting, conflicting emotions. He is no longer merely the €45,000-a-week striker currently filling Alan Shearer’s old number nine shirt. By refusing to wear branded kit bearing the logo of Newcastle’s new sponsors, Wonga, on the grounds that promoting the payday loans company offends his Muslim and personal beliefs, Cisse is suddenly at the epicentre of a clash between football’s corporate interests and ethical responsibilities.
With both Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, and Wonga adamant they will not grant his wish to appear in either charity or non-branded gear, Cisse was left behind, training alone, when Alan Pardew’s squad flew to a pre-season training camp in Portugal last week. No one appears quite sure whether he is attempting to engineer a lucrative transfer – assorted Russian clubs are in pursuit – or making a rare, brave, principled stand.
With the new season looming and Joe Kinnear, Newcastle’s new director of football, having, so far, failed to supply the two new strikers Pardew craves, Newcastle, acutely aware that sacking Cisse for breach of contract would involve forfeiting a near €15m transfer fee, have sought help from lawyers specialising in Islamic law, imams and the English Professional Footballers’ Association as they strive for a rapprochement.
So far, none seems likely, although it hardly helps that Cisse’s beliefs appear somewhat amorphous. While Sharia law forbids an individual benefiting from interest payments, he had no difficulty sporting the logo of Newcastle’s previous backer, Virgin Money. Cisse perhaps regards the eye-watering interest rates charged by Wonga as a step too far but Abu Tayeb, project manager at the Islamic Diversity Centre North East, acknowledges an inherent contradiction.
“Even though I support Papiss Cisse’s decision not to promote Wonga, the issue for me is the inconsistency,” he says. “Whether it’s Virgin Money, Barclays or Wonga, Islam considers the giving and receiving of interest impermissible. But Muslims are very diverse. Some practise their faith more strictly than others. There are different understandings and interpretations of Islamic law.
“A Muslim has to honour his contract,” adds Abu Tayeb. “It’s a major sin not to.”
Waters are muddied by Cisse’s failure to object immediately when Wonga’s €28m four-year sponsorship was announced last autumn.
Precedents have been set by Hashim Amla, the Muslim South Africa cricketer who was exempted from wearing shirts advertising Castle Lager, and the former Sevilla striker Fredi Kanoute’s insistence on donning a plain, unbranded top after the striker objected to the club’s betting company backer.
Eventually a deal was brokered whereby Kanoute wore Sevilla’s sponsored shirt during matches but was excused any publicity work involving gambling promotion.
Pardew must hope Ashley, Wonga and Cisse can somehow achieve a similar compromise without the need for the dispute to be taken to the English Premier League board.