Former Swansea teammate Leon Britton backs new signing Bafetimbi Gomis to become an Al-Hilal hero

1 / 3
Bafetimbi Gomis signed for the Riyadh giants this summer for $16.2 million. (Al-Hilal)
2 / 3
3 / 3
Updated 10 September 2018
0

Former Swansea teammate Leon Britton backs new signing Bafetimbi Gomis to become an Al-Hilal hero

  • Britton claims former France international has what it takes to score a sackful of goals for the Riyadh giants.
  • Out-and-out No. 9 is Gomis' best position, former teammate says.

LONDON: A former teammate of Al-Hilal’s new star signing Bafetimbi Gomis said he is not surprised the former French international has moved to the Middle East and that the Saudi Pro League title favorites have signed a No. 9 with real pedigree.
Leon Britton, the Swansea City legend, spent two seasons playing with Gomis in the Premier League and got to know the striker’s game inside out. He said it did not come as a shock when it was announced the 33-year-old was moving to the Kingdom.
“It’s funny really, as he very nearly left Swansea for Dubai or Qatar — somewhere like that,” Britton told Arab News.
“He was very close to going there and we all thought it was done. We’d said our goodbyes but it fell through. So it doesn’t surprise me he has gone to the Middle East now as it was on the cards three or four years ago.”
Gomis signed for Al-Hilal last month in a deal that saw the Riyadh giants pay Galatasaray a reported €14 million ($16.2 million), making the 33-year-old the league’s second costliest ever player. He made his debut against Al-Feiha, playing just over an hour of the 1-0 win and he is expected to lead the line again when they travel to Al-Raed on Saturday.
Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus will hope the striker will quickly capture the form that earned the player 12 international caps and 16 goals in 64 games for Swansea.
“It’s difficult to assess his time at Swansea, really,” said Britton.
“It was a success and it wasn’t, I suppose. He was fighting against Wilfried Bony for that starting place in the team as we weren’t playing two up front. It was either Bony or Baf. When he did play, he proved his quality.”
Only 28 of his 64 league appearances for Swansea did not come from the bench, but he still managed to score 13 league goals, despite a lean start that saw him open up with just one in his first 11 matches.
“A lot of top players find it difficult coming to the Premier League and getting used to the pace and intensity of the game,” said Britton. 
“I remember being quite surprised when we signed him, because he’d come from Lyon where he’d been scoring in the Champions League, so it was a big coup for the club. He definitely took a while to adjust to the English game, but you could always see his quality in training.”

Gomis enjoyed his time in the Premier League for Swansea City, seen here terrorizing Chelsea's John Terry. 

Gomis eventually got up to speed, scoring a winner against Manchester United and finishing the season with five in his last six games to end his first season as the club’s top-scorer, inspiring the team to a record eighth-place finish.
He then got four in four at the start of the following season, including the winner again against United, but things then tailed off and he only managed three for the rest of the campaign and was loaned to Marseille in the summer of 2016.
“His opportunities were limited and we didn’t quite give him the service he needed,” said Britton.
“But he’s very good in and around the box and a very good finisher.”
Al-Hilal played him as a lone striker in their opening league game and that is where Britton feels he is best suited, as an out-and-out No. 9.
“He’s always playing on the last shoulder and looking to get in behind,” said Britton. “He’s not lightening quick but he’s got a bit of pace. He gets caught offside a few times as he’s always on the shoulder rather coming to feet.
“He’ll always look to stretch the defense and his best work is in the penalty box rather than coming short and linking. He’s strong in the air and his hold-up play is good. He’s a powerful boy.”
Britton said he was sad when Gomis was loaned from Swansea to Marseille in 2016 and then eventually sold to Galatasaray, as the Swans fans did not quite see the best of him.
“I know he was growing a bit frustrated as he wasn’t getting the minutes he would like,” Britton said.
“Someone of his quality and the type of lad he is, he wants to be playing all the time. It’s understandable he wanted to get out and play, but we were disappointed to lose a good player.”
Gomis spent 14 years playing in Europe but the Middle East is now his arena and he now shares a dressing room with attacking talent Carlos Eduardo, Omar Khribin and Omar Abdulrahman. 
“Baf is a lovely guy,” said Britton.

Leon Britton is a big fan of Gomis and backs him to do well for Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pro League. 

“In fairness, he didn’t speak much English, but he made a massive effort to learn the language as quickly as possible. He is a really good guy, very pleasant, very happy and was never a problem, even when he wasn’t playing he didn’t cause any issues. When I retired (in May) he put something on Twitter so that showed his character.”
Al-Hilal fans hope it will not be long before they see Gomis’ trademark panther goal celebration, a move that sees him crawl demonically toward the fans like a big cat.
“He got a bit of stick from our lads when we first saw it,” said Britton. “But he took it in good jest and I think you know you are going to cop a fair bit of banter from the lads when you do something like that. It’s certainly unique.”


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

Updated 22 September 2018
0

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.”