It’s no surprise that a clash of corporate and ethical interests has finally produced a stand-off. The outcome however has a predictable feel.
When you’re as big as the Premier League, you can’t expect to maneuver delicately through every glitzy cocktail party without spilling the odd drink on some fairly expensive outfit. With so many competing A-list interests clamoring for priority in a crowded room, feet will inevitably be trodden on and a certain bitterness hangs in the air. Globalization has allowed the game and its audience to grow together to create a forward thinking industry that takes a keen interest in dynamic multiculturalism, but from time to time the project closes its eyes to the peculiarities of its ambitious task.
Papiss Cisse has pulled down the thin barrier that separated a pig-headed media industry from a stubborn set of cultural practices this week by resisting Newcastle’s attempts to make him play in a shirt sponsored by pay-day loan firm Wonga, leaving two factions staring each other uneasily in the eye and unsure about how to proceed. Predictably enough, neither devout Muslim Cisse nor the men holding the contracts that bind his club to the controversial high street lender are keen to make the first move, leaving a tense stalemate that almost threatens to shake the Premier League’s decision makers out of their fickle indifference towards things that can’t be quantified on their monthly statement.
The authorities have so far done exactly what they do best when thorny issues that could undermined the foundation of indiscriminate growth present themselves – sat on their hands and waited for the thing to solve itself. There were some mutterings at Premier League HQ that “a solution will have to be found that will work for all parties” but the most likely solution it seems will be for Cisse to walk away, quietly or otherwise, from the club and be re-housed in a location where he will be less likely to bring the spotlight down on the controversial points of contact between football and the real world – a world where usurious predators pounce upon disenfranchised and vulnerable families as they reel from the effects of withering welfare provisions. But as long as Papiss is kitted out in the tame branding of a Cardiff or a West Ham, that can remain a natter for another day.
Spare a thought though for Richard Scudamore and his cohort who find themselves well and truly up the creek. The Premier League have always been all about the bigger picture, even if that means climbing so high above the landscape that they can’t see the detail on the ground below. Certainly the Wonga fall-out is a symptom of this disconnection from the lives of large parts of their audience, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the optimum time for a workable solution that shows even a thread of empathy has long passed. Because whatever action the League choose to take now, it will open up the war on a new front.
If Cisse is allowed to wear an unbranded shirt, as was the case when Freddy Kanoute spoke out against a sponsor at odds with his personal beliefs during his Sevilla days, then implicitly the club will be driving a wedge between itself and football’s Islamic supporter base. The policy would amount to an admission that Newcastle’s ethical code is at loggerheads with the personal and cultural values of a growing community and the bear-fronted Cisse would be a conspicuous weekly reminder that the club is in public and permanent disagreement with the Islamic community.
The club could go a step further and renege on the deal with Wonga, leaving them without a sponsor for the season and somewhere in the region of £8million worse off – a non-starter for obvious reasons, unless of course the club’s hands were to be tied by the League authorities. Putting in a place a test to determine what is ‘fit and proper’ in regards to a commercial sponsor would be a game changer and would take the matter out of Newcastle’s, Cisse’s and everybody else’s hands – such is the hallmark of firm leadership. But the Premier League has one or two hallmarks of its own, and thundering boastfully about its role as a sporting and cultural flag-bearer seems higher up its list of priorities than drafting the blueprints for a mutually beneficial fiscal doctrine.
It’s also important to remember just what it is we’re all arguing about here. Invoking religious creed as Cisse has done always creates a hypersensitive atmosphere and it’s not always easy to see clearly in and amongst the smoke and mirrors laid out by an excitable media set for whom poking fun at institutions of faith appears to be rivetingly in vogue. One needn’t be a subscriber to Islamic dogma to be repulsed by interest rates of up to 4000% being saddled onto families pinned into a corner by an economic crisis they played no part in making, and this particular ethical question has been facing the football authorities for years. One by one as more and more pay-day loan firms, online betting sites and brewing companies stitch their brands onto the chests of star players, the thinking-aloud grows louder. Passing the game on to a younger generation is a popular epitaph in football PR – leaving that inheritance in a state fit for purpose appears less of a priority.
In Cisse, the football landscape has a rare landmark representing integrity on a materially driven bedrock – that his fight is un-winnable shouldn’t distract us from what is a sincere and laudable protest. But time, and the cynical process of capital investment, will surely yet show it to be in vain. There may only be one Papiss Cisse but there are a hundred and one football clubs who would readily welcome Wonga into their bosom for a share of a healthy payout.