Who could lift the NFL’s Vince Lombardi at next year’s Super Bowl?

Doug Pederson and Nick Foles’ side have gone from the hunters to the hunted after their success last year in the Super Bowl. (AFP)
Updated 06 September 2018

Who could lift the NFL’s Vince Lombardi at next year’s Super Bowl?

LONDON: The biggest American sporting show kicks off on Thursday, and this year’s NFL season has a lot to live up to after 2017’s remarkable turn of events. Reigning Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles start us off on Thursday against the Atlanta Falcons, and all this week Arab News has previewed the teams most likely to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy next February…

New England Patriots — Everyone’s favorites before almost every season, 2018 will be the same. One of the best rosters in the history of sport for a decade, the Patriots will be a force to be reckoned with once again. Bill Bellichik and Tom Brady might not have much left in the tank, but they will want to cement their positions as the best ever with yet another Super Bowl ring.

Philadelphia Eagles — You can never count out defending champions from holding on to their title in any sport, and the Eagles are no different. C, but this settled side could well become the first NFC team to win back-to-back titles in 25 years.

Los Angeles Rams — A lot might change from opening day to the “Big One”, one team has been on a lot of people’s lips — the Los Angeles Rams. As defending NFC West Division champs, coming off an 11–5 record, they have added quality to their roster in the offseason. They will certainly go close.

Pittsburgh Steelers — Perennial favorites to win the ultimate prize, Pennsylvania’s other team have lived in the shadows of the upstart Eagles for a few years now. But last year, the Steelers went 13-3 for the season, and even though it ended in disappointment, the underlying factors that contributed to them winning so many games are still very much in place. Dark horses.

Minnesota Vikings — While they were demolished by eventual champions Philadelphia, the Vikings showed themselves to be worthy challengers for the big prize. And thanks to the incredible work by their general manager and the rest of the franchises’ front office, the Vikings are perfectly primed to chase a first ever Vince Lombardi trophy once again in 2018.

New Orleans Saints — Most people’s “second team” after their fairytale win in 2009 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints will always be a threat with Sean Payton in charge and Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees shepherding the offense. The head says whether they make it all the way will depend on how tight their defense stays throughout the year, but the heart says this storied franchise can go all the way.

Green Bay Packers — Always a force to be reckoned with, the Packers can put their horrific 2017 season behind them. The Wisconsin outfit were boosted in pre-season with the news that legendary quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed a contract extension, which will reportedly make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Keeping him fit will be key to their chances.

Atlanta Falcons — They were desperately unlucky not to win a maiden Super Bowl championship in 2016, when they missed out to the New England Patriots. Keeping a roster fit is key to making a run at the “Big Game”, and the Falcons have done that well in recent years. If they manage it again this year and Matt Ryan fires on all cylinders, they have an outside chance.

Jacksonville Jaguars — It seems bizarre to be even saying the Jags have a shot at the Super Bowl, considering where they were just a few years ago. But after almost going all the way last year, the Jags’ defense will be the key again. If they can remove the errors on big plays in crunch games, this “possible relocation” team could go out on the biggest of bangs.

Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

Updated 22 September 2018

Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

  • Mohamed Salah's record-breaking season has focused attention on the Premier League's Muslim players and fans.
  • Past three players to win Player of the Year have all been Muslim.

LONDON: The face of English football has changed unimaginably since the start of the Premier League in 1992 — not least in terms of the number of Muslim footballers plying their trade in the most popular league in the world.
Twenty-six years ago, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nayim was the league’s only practicing Muslim. Fast forward to 2018 and there are now more than 40 Muslim players gracing England’s top flight — many of them global stars such as Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. 
This is a hugely welcome development for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and its education adviser, Riz Rehman, who is himself a Muslim. 
Rehman’s role involves him supporting players of different backgrounds — including Muslims — and aiming to boost their participation in football. Little wonder, then, that he is delighted that the past three winners of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award were all Muslim — Salah, Kante and Riyad Mahrez. 
“It’s great for the Muslim community — young people, players, aspiring players and coaches — that three Muslims have won this award and that two of them (Salah and Mahrez) are Arabs,” Rehman told Arab News. 
“It’s very important because it’s created more awareness about Muslims being good at the game and sport in general. It’s important we highlight this.” 
Leading Muslim footballers’ soaring success and stardom have coincided with rising Islamaphobic attacks in Britain following the Brexit vote in 2016. Regressive attitudes toward race, religion and immigration have raged in some parts of the country, as Rehman acknowledged. 
“The biggest misconceptions are that Muslims are all terrorists or that they are all Asian and have long beards,” he said. “Isolated incidents are giving Muslims a bad name.” 
Mercifully for Rehman and the PFA, the likes of Salah and Kante are portraying Muslims in a far more positive — and realistic — light on and off the pitch. 
During his sublime 2017-18 season, Liverpool star Salah topped the Premier League goal-scoring charts with 32 goals and reached the Champions League final. His unstinting brilliance led to him being serenaded with his own song by Liverpool fans, which includes the line: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too.” 

Mohamed Salah has created a positive image of Muslims during his record-breaking year in the Premier League. 

Many social media posts and videos showing young supporters copying the Egyptian maestro’s overtly religious goal celebration have also been posted many times. This involves him performing sujood, the Islamic art of prostration. 
“Things like that are really helping to bring down barriers in the game,” Rehman said. 
Likewise, he cites the fact that Salah and his Liverpool teammate, Sadio Mane, visit a mosque every week after training for Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer. 
Meanwhile, only last Saturday the humbleness of Chelsea’s irrepressible midfielder Kante — who has two Premier League winners’ medals and one FA Cup success to his name — was widely hailed. 
After missing his Eurostar train to Paris, Kante — who achieved World Cup glory with France in July — was invited home for dinner by Arsenal fan Badlur Rahman Jalil after meeting him while praying at a London mosque. Remarkably, Kante duly obliged and spent the evening watching Match of the Day and playing the FIFA video game with Jalil and his friends. 
“People are more aware that we have Muslim players in the game,” Rehman said. “Players are not afraid to come out and embrace the fact that they are Muslims and showing the world that they’re good people.” 
But are the PFA — and clubs in the Premier League and England in general — doing enough to increase Muslim representation in English football? 
“I think things are better than ever. A lot of clubs are working hard on all-inclusive programs,” replied Rehman, who was a promising youth-team player at Brentford before injury cut short his career at the age of 17 in 2000. 
“We deliver workshops aimed at club staff to educate them about better engaging Muslim communities. We get staff and coaches together and tell them more about Islam, what it involves and discuss Ramadan and how it might affect performance and participation at all levels. 
“On the back of that, hopefully clubs will deliver programs around the needs of the community. There are clubs like Crystal Palace who are looking to deliver Asian-specific programs to get more Asian kids playing football, more Asian coaches and look at the Muslim community as well.” 
Rehman himself helped organized an Iftar event at League One outfit Portsmouth earlier this year, which “went really well.” 
“We also had players come along to support the day. Clubs such as Crystal Palace, Leicester City and a few others are showing an interest in holding similar events next season. 
“Leicester City are a club with a massive Asian community and we are supporting them with trying to set up some programs.” 
Also high on Rehman’s agenda is encouraging more BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) coaches into the game. As well as sitting on the advisory group for the Premier Leagues Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme, one key program he is involved in is “Sidelined-to-Sidelines.”

N'Golo Kante has been one of the best players in England's top-flight since he moved to the Premier League three years ago. 

This was established by the Zesh Rehman Foundation — which was set up by his brother, a former Fulham defender — to address a shortage of qualified South Asian coaches. 
“We are setting up sessions to try and recruit young coaches at clubs like Crystal Palace, QPR and Chelsea,” Rehman revealed. “Coaches wearing those club badges become role models and are able to influence their own communities and encourage more kids (from under-represented ethnicities) to take up the game.” 
Rehman is keen to recruit more Muslim “ambassadors” at clubs “up and down the country” to emulate the likes of the inspirational Salah. 
“We want them to work with the community, local groups, mosques, and get players to actually go into those communities and build links with the clubs. It’s a two-way thing.” 
Progress has also been made in attracting more Muslim supporters to Premier League matches, Rehman added. Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are among the clubs that have multi-faith prayer rooms to cater for their increasingly diverse fanbases, he said. 
“Some clubs sell halal food, too, so there’s something for everyone.
“It’s a worldwide game now. Mo Salah has reached out to a lot of people. I think Muslim communities themselves have to make an effort to go to matches. 
“It’s not an overnight success, but you do see different communities represented on match days, week in and week out.”