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World Cup trophy offending Muslims and FIFA must fix

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Behind the grand sporting fiesta that awaits at the 2018 FIFA World Cup the tournament has been marred by a series of subplots that painted an ugly picture before the games even got underway.
USA TODAY Sports

MOSCOW — Impressive though it was, it didn’t take the construction of a 12-foot high tower of plastic cups at a FIFA fan festival to prove that beer is a major part of the World Cup

The booze has flowed freely since the start of the tournament, tens of thousands of supporters supplementing their trip of a lifetime with some timely liquid refreshment as temperatures rise and the on-field action heats up.

Nothing wrong with that, and there is no attempt here to spoil anyone’s fun. But there is one spot where beer’s role in soccer’s biggest show has created a level of awkwardness that FIFA should have seen coming.

When Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy was awarded the Man of the Match award for his heroics during his team’s narrow defeat to Uruguay on Friday, he declined the accept the trophy.

The reason, it has been widely reported, is that El-Shenawy is Muslim, and the “prize” handed out for being the best performer in each World Cup game, is a bright red chalice provided by Budweiser with the company’s name emblazoned down the front.

A photograph of El-Shenawy appearing to wave his hand in indication that he did not wish to refuse the trophy quickly made its way around the internet, and sparked strong debate about the appropriateness of such a prize at a global tournament featuring players of multiple cultures and religions.

Followers of Islam are prohibited from drinking alcohol.

Budweiser is an official sponsor of the World Cup and allows fans to vote on who should receive the award at the end of each game. The company pays millions of dollars for the privilege and few would dispute that it has had a positive impact on the sport.

However, failing to come up with an alternative that could have averted a situation like the one that followed the Egypt game is a ludicrous lack of foresight on the part of FIFA.

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There are five Muslim nations competing in the tournament, with Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco having qualified through the African confederation and Saudi Arabia and Iran via Asia. Furthermore, there are several Muslim players representing other nations, including high-profile stars such as France’s Paul Pogba and Germany’s Mesut Ozil.

No one is suggesting that Budweiser’s sponsorship of the Man of the Match award should be scrapped, but several alternative variations should be available for if a Muslim player might be selected. Any of them would be welcome, including the availability of a substitute trophy without the Budweiser name.

The English Premier League was caught out by this cultural sticking point six years ago, when its tradition of seeing a bottle of champagne presented to the best player in televised games caused some embarrassment.

Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, of the Ivory Coast, immediately handed the champagne to a teammate when it was given to him after a match, which prompted the EPL to keep a bottle of non-alcoholic drink on standby ever since.

It was a quick fix, and it has been a non-issue ever since. FIFA, which did not respond to requests for comment on the matter on Monday, has the option of doing the same.

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