A detailed look into Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse situation

Cisse may be gambling with more than just his reputation but a bold ethical stance in an unforgiving commercial jungle still demands respect.

Papiss Cisse enjoyed a peculiar martyrdom for much of last week rarely experienced by football’s nuveau-riche. Not since Paulo Di Canio picked up the ball with an open goal gaping to tend to a stricken Paul Gerrard in 2001 has there been such a unanimous out-pouring of support for a lone-ranger standing up against the torrential forces that pull players, sponsors and investors down the same never ending path in pursuit of sporting and commercial excellence. With any luck Cisse will have enjoyed his week basking under his halo, because with images emerging yesterday of the Newcastle forward passing his winter evenings in a casino all the rhetoric about shunning the club’s sponsor Wonga due to an incompatibility with his Islamic beliefs is looking shaky, and vocal public support has quickly turned to ardent and undisguised contempt.

There’s been no shortage of takers to land the first blow on the Senegalese as he reels from accusations of shallow double standards, and Newcastle city councillor Dipu Ahad, also a practicing Muslim, nipped in quickly to remind Cisse that their faith is not about “picking and choosing.” The Islamic community are doubtlessly not the only interested party with their hackles up over Cisse’s perceived indiscretions, although both the club and Wonga have remained cautiously tight-lipped on their next move.

From a PR perspective things don’t look good for Cisse – the consensus seems to be that he has sought to exploit the cultural sensitivities of his faith in order to back his employers into a corner regarding his future, gaining himself a bargaining chip in contract matters whilst potentially jeopardising a game changing sponsorship arrangement for the club upon which its medium term future rests. Once dusted off from his fall from grace Cisse will clamber back to his feet to meet the accusing gaze of his club, his fans, his cultural mentors and protégés.

Three big reactions from three powerful forces which have the strength to hold the player in an emotional headlock, holding hostage his sense of professional, personal and spiritual peace. But then when have the reactions of collectives ever been a useful barometer for gauging a steady picture of events? Cisse will have a volume of questions to answer over the coming weeks but the facts and figures which stack up to make the case against him haven’t, in all truth, changed much since the latest pictures hit the net.

The judgements hanging over Cisse do so divorced from reality and reflect poorly the events of the last ten days. Each can be stripped down to reveal macro-communities looking for a scapegoat and finding one in the form of a man simply trying to uphold some hardly controversial principals. The club and its much maligned sponsor, for example, are riled that Cisse’s protest was made under a banner which, in lieu of the casino outing, now appears to have been flown insincerely. The two corporate partners judge that by deferring to matters of faith Cisse unfairly protected himself against the terms of his contract by wrapping around him the plausible robes of a deeply religious man under attack. By violating his principals on gambling so too the thorny issue of usury seems altogether easier to grasp. So goes the theory.


Likewise the Islamic community, vocally led by Ahad, feel deliberately manipulated – used as a pawn by one of their own willing to sell out the sanctity of the faith for a shot at an improved contract or a hassle-free transfer. All parties demand answers, but Cisse owes none.

Because no one, not Newcastle United nor Wonga, not the Premier League nor the Islamic Council has a right to dictate to what extent Cisse may or may not defer to his own conscience. If a player feels his personal values are being compromised by being made party to a sponsorship arrangement he finds disagreeable – whether he feels so as a Muslim or a Christian, as a Socialist or a free-market corporatist, or just as a family man with an eye on the plight of the out-of-work working-class – is that not his prerogative? Do the figureheads of any of the groups mentioned here hold power of veto over to what extent subscribers may mix and match their interests when forming nascent personal identities, especially in a world where post-modernist non-certainty is in vogue to the point of saturation?

However, many schools of thought one dips into when making moral judgements the presence of fixed doctrine is becoming less conspicuous, and dogma no longer indoctrinates the way it did for previous generations. The modern Muslim, pious and devout, may feel deep disgust at the way Wonga infects and kills off vulnerable families and yet be at peace with light gambling as a means of recreation – as tens of thousands of atheists, Buddhists, communists, Keynesians and Manchester United fans are. For any movement in philosophy to remain current – and this includes the core religions – they must necessarily show themselves to be fluid and responsive, for the sake of external harmony and internal workability. Cisse, far from the anti-hero the press would have us perceive, may yet turn out to be a pallbearer for freedom of conscience.

The alternative, of course, is that Newcastle’s top-scorer is out for what he can get and the whole affair has been a duplicitous ploy to trick the club into concessions in order to avoid a tense stand-off with the player, the press and the Islamic community. With today’s announcement that the player will begin the season on Tyne-side decked out in the same black, white and Wonga as his teammates, any chance of Cisse drawing any great financial or reputational interest from the affair seems slim, but before writing-off the squabble as a meek plea for more gone horribly wrong, cynics step away and reflect: Cisse took a risk in standing up to big corporate interests and motivations being as they may that demands acknowledgement. And to those accusing voices that would rather damn a man for his inconsistencies than champion him for his strong spirit, the world as labelled and filed away in boxes is fracturing and reforming. Our man Papiss may yet prove to be the first of a new breed who aren’t afraid to colour a little outside the lines.     

Robert O’Connor