Thursday, 18 July 2013

Cissé out of Newcastle pre-season tour amid Wonga controversy

Ben Finn looks at Papiss Cisse's falling out with Newcastle over their sponsor

Having ostensibly being forced to train alone upon his return to Benton Park (Newcastle’s training ground) last week, Papiss Demba Cissé is to miss out on Newcastle’s pre-season tour of Portugal this week as a result of his refusal to wear any apparel endorsing the payday loan company Wonga.

Details of the discussions between Cissé’s team and Newcastle are unclear, with some reports saying he was dropped by the club and others saying he pulled out himself. What we do know is that Cissé has offered to wear either a shirt advertising a charity or with no sponsor at all. Evidently this is unsatisfactory to the powers that be.

Cissé’s refusal to endorse Wonga is borne out of an interpretation of Sharia law that states that a Muslim cannot benefit financially from lending or receiving money. There is, however, a precedent for this kind of protest. Freddie Kanouté, whilst playing for Sevilla, objected to the “” sponsor for similar reasons to Cissé. Sevilla respected Kanouté’s views and as a result allowed him to cover the sponsor when playing and did not make him attend events sponsored by the gambling website. This was a refreshingly mature negotiation for a modern football club that demonstrated how much Sevilla valued Kanouté’s beliefs. Hopefully an analogous mutually beneficial solution can be found at Newcastle.

On the other hand, whilst there is no doubt that Wonga opposes Cissé’s views, should he not have taken the same stance in the past? Newcastle’s previous two sponsors were Virgin Money and Northern Rock, both of whom charge interest on their loans and pay interest on holders’ deposits. Admittedly, Wonga’s APR is over 4000%, but surely interest is interest regardless of the percentage.

This raises questions of ulterior motives for Cissé’s protest. It is rumoured that the striker could be using the issue as leverage over the board to either hand him a new contract, or sell him. However, I am sceptical of most ‘rumours’ designed to fill column inches during the summer transfer window during which bored journalists (present company included) and agents try to whip up a storm over nothing.

Nevertheless, considering the string of PR disasters that have plagued Newcastle in recent months - renaming St James’ Park, the Wonga sponsorship and the Joe Kinnear debacle - allowing Cissé to follow his religious beliefs seems to me a good place to stop the rot. Furthermore, PFA chief executive Bobby Barnes has told the BBC that "[i]f someone feels very, very strongly that it [the club sponsor] is not compatible with their beliefs, then some sort of solution should be found."

Clearly, Cissé does feel “very, very strongly” and a solution should be found. As a Newcastle fan myself, I just hope the solution involves him remaining at the club - mainly out of fear of Shola Ameobi being handed the number 9 shirt.

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