All the more reason therefore to sing the praises of Papiss Cisse. This week the Newcastle striker put his career at St James Park on the line by refusing to wear a shirt that carried the logo of the club's new sponsor – the payday loans company, Wonga. The Senegalese has said that to advertise the exploitative, money-grabbing bastards would compromise his Islamic beliefs. And he’s not alone. The Muslim Council of Britain have voiced their concerns, and the local Labour MP and United season ticket holder, Ian Lavery, has said that he won’t set foot in the ground again while Wonga are still sponsors, although I presume his motive is more politically than religiously motivated. The club seem unmoved by such public condemnation, possibly something to do with the £8 million pound a year they stand to gain from the sponsorship deal. Meanwhile, having unsuccessfully offered a compromise solution whereby he would play in a shirt without a sponsor’s name, Cisse has pulled out of Newcastle’s pre-season trip to Portugal.
Wonga on the other hand have seemed to stay relatively quiet. The company have made their name as one of the new breed of legal loan-shark, offering short-term loans to people struggling to make ends meet from month to month. They have been accused rightly of cashing in on the misery of the poorest people in society by slapping them with extortionate rates of interest: their website talks of a “Representative 5853% APR”. No wonder they saw their profits treble in 2011 to £45.8 million. Now in the middle of a recession they rock up in the heart of the North-East, an area with the highest unemployment rate in the country, advertising their wares ready to feed off the poverty and desperation.
It needn’t be this way, and Newcastle United fans should take heart from the success of Bolton supporters who stopped Wonga-lite firm QuickQuid from becoming their team’s sponsor earlier this year. Over 4,500 Wanderers’ fans signed a petition and enough protests took place to force the hand of the board, who dropped QuickQuid rather than provoke a mass boycott. It was a small sign that, even in the age of modern football, fan pressure can still influence a club. For Newcastle fans this would potentially mean a fight to the finish with the deeply unpopular United chairman Mike Ashley. Obviously removing Ashley wouldn’t usher in a brave new world of collective ownership, but it would be no bad thing for fan power to depose a man who has antagonised the hometown support, temporarily renamed the ground (Sports Direct Arena anyone?) and re-employed Joe Kinnear. As visitors to St James’ Park are fond of saying, there’s only one joke in ‘ere, and it’s your choice of director of football.
Papiss Cisse should be congratulated for breaking the political silence of professional sportspeople in this country (and not for the first time, he was one of the footballers who signed a letter of solidarity with the Palestinians late last year). Even the Profesional Footballers’ Association, while offering the usual sops to commercial interests, has stood behind Cisse. PFA deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes told BBC Sport: "We're all aware that clubs need to generate revenue and sometimes have to use a wide range of companies. However, if someone feels very, very strongly that it's not compatible with their beliefs, then some sort of solution should be found."
But it really shouldn’t be about religion. Any footballer with a degree of empathy for the fans that pay their wages, and any supporter who has struggled to find the £40 for a replica shirt should feel repulsed. Boycotting the club or refusing to buy a strip emblazoned with the Wonga logo may not overcome the inequalities of capitalism, but football fans should refuse to advertise a company that will send the bailiffs round if they’ve struggled to find the money to pay their rent or feed their kids. Cisse’s outspoken stand has brought the issue of pay-day lenders to the foreground and for this we should owe him a debt of gratitude.