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Wonga deal poses dilemma for Muslim players

ISLAM: Newcastle's Ba and Cissé may have to realign moral values for the 2013/2014 season if they remain at the club

LOAN COMPANY Wonga’s new deal to sponsor Newcastle United could risk alienating the club’s Muslim players.

Wonga and the Premier League side have signed a four-year sponsorship deal understood to be worth £8m annually, which has attracted controversy from critics, including MPs and campaigners opposed to debt, who object to the company’s high interest rates.

However, the deal raises a religious and moral dilemma for the Magpies’ four first-team Muslim players – Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé, Cheik Tioté, and Hatem Ben Arfa – because orthodox followers of Islam are forbidden to receive or pay interest.

Newcastle’s new “lead commercial sponsor” charges an average annual interest rate of 4,214 percent, a figure which has motivated Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, to wage a two-year campaign for there to be a government cap on interest rates charged by companies.

The assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Ibrahim Mogra, told The Voice Newcastle’s decision to use Wonga as a commercial partner does not only pose religious questions for players, but also “moral and ethical choices”.

Mogra said: “As Muslims we are taught that we should help others [through] good work and not help in things that are not right. And promoting interest would be included in the many things that we believe are not right.

“Islam forbids interest, and therefore forbids the promotion of interest, especially of the kind that Wonga deals with in the terms of its high percentage.”

However, the MCB leader said the choice of whether to wear Wonga branded shirts is “a decision they [players] will have to make themselves, in consultation with the club and their own personal convictions.”

“There is a wonderful example that Seville set in Spain when Freddie Kanouté was playing for them,” Mogra added.

“They made allowances for him to wear a non-branded shirt during matches. As a Muslim, he believed gambling was wrong and he did not want to advertise an online gambling company while he was playing football.

“So I think there is room there for negotiations to take place between the players and the club.”

The Muslim leader also pointed out the Tyneside club’s new sponsor was not just an issue for practitioners of Islam.

“I believe that for people who agree with paying interest, it would be very helpful for them if companies like Wonga and others offered rates which are in line with what is acceptable at a high street bank level, rather than charge extremely high rates which cause a lot of difficulty for poor and vulnerable individuals and families.”

CRITIC: Labour MP for Newcastle Chi Onwurah believes Wonga is the "wrong image" for the city

Newcastle’s first black MP, Labour’s Chi Onwurah, was also critical of the new sponsorship deal. She told The Voice: “I think it’s terrible. You’ve got to think of where the money comes from.

“The north east has been hit hardest by the cuts; we have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And now we’ll have our sporting icons wearing shirts promoting a legal loan shark company.

“It is horrific,” she said.

On the matter of the team’s Muslim players and their Wonga branded shirts for the 2013/14 season, Onwurah said: “I’m not going to tell others how to follow their religion.”

However, the politician had a message for “all Newcastle players.”

She said: “They are among the richest in our city, and by them endorsing Wonga, they are encouraging vulnerable people to waste money on sky-high interest rates.

“We’ve got a diverse team,” the Labour MP added, “having Wonga as a sponsor sends out the wrong image about our club, city and people.”

Nonetheless, Newcastle claim the deal with Wonga represents good business. According to the club’s official website: “Wonga will invest at least £1.5m in two of the Club's most important projects.” Those being Newcastle’s academy and Newcastle United Foundation Enterprise Scheme, an existing programme that helps young people find employment.

The Magpies’ manager, Alan Pardew, has defended the deal – he believes criticism of the sponsorship agreement has been laced with hypocrisy.

“You see other companies, whether it is Standard Chartered, who are the same type of business as Wonga, or betting companies sponsoring football clubs and nothing gets said,” the former West Ham boss said.

“When we get it we have MPs calling for all kind of things and it just seems strange.”

Also endorsing the new partnership was striker Shola Ameobi, who said: “It’s fantastic news.

“For me, speaking to the guys from Wonga I sensed that they want to help Newcastle turn into a club which brings young players through. That's so important”, the forward added. “We need the sustainability involved in bringing players through.”

It remains to be seen whether Ba, Cissé, Tioté, and Ben Arfa are as keen as their team-mate.

MIDFIELD GENERAL: Cheik Tioté is another key player for the Magpies

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