Not for the first time this summer, Newcastle United are in the news and making headlines across Britain’s sports pages.
But unfortunately for their supporters, there is no marquee signing behind the headlines, and once again the club are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Papiss Cisse’s refusal to wear branded kit bearing the name of payday loan sponsors Wonga on religious grounds is a row that’s been bubbling under the surface for months.
But his return to training this week has seen the situation escalate rapidly, leading to the Senegal international’s omission from the squad’s preseason trip to Portugal.
Talks to try and resolve the issue have taken place over the last few days, but with no resolution on the table, both the club and the player have reached a stalemate.
The standoff has prompted reports of Cisse’s exit from St. James’ Park, with Simon Bird from Mirror Football suggesting last season’s joint-top scorer could be sold in light of the impasse.
And with United already short of options in attack, the dispute is the last thing manager Alan Pardew needs with just four weeks to go before the start of the new Premier League season.
Devout Muslim Cisse aired his concerns about brandishing Wonga’s logo earlier this year, with their controversially high interest rates directly contravening the 28-year-old’s faith.
Sharia Law dictates that a Muslim must not profit from lending or receiving money, and with Wonga’s representative APR currently standing at 5853 percent, their business model flies in the face of the striker’s beliefs.
With a compromise urgently required, both the club and Wonga have stood firm, and flatly refused Cisse’s request to wear non-branded clothing or even kit brandishing a charity’s logo.
The fallout has seen the forward training alone over the past few days, and his omission from the Portugal trip, which will see Newcastle play two preseason friendlies, has set alarm bells ringing.
A £9 million signing from Freiburg in January 2012, Cisse was an instant hit on Tyneside, netting a memorable winner on his debut and bagging some truly remarkable goals in the months that followed.
His penchant for the spectacular saw him win the 2011-12 Goal of the Season competition following his extraordinary effort against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The Dakar-born front-man ended that campaign with 13 goals in 14 games, and though his form was less prolific last term, he still chipped in with a respectable tally of 13 in all competitions.
Following Demba Ba’s departure to Chelsea at the turn of the year, Cisse became United’s main attacking outlet, and such is the shortage of alternatives at the club, was often found operating as a one-man strike force.
Far from ideal, Cisse ploughed on nonetheless, and his impressive work rate ensured he remained a constant threat despite his isolation up front.
With Newcastle in the market for fresh goalscoring talent to complement their No. 9 prior to this week’s events, their lack of firepower looked like being finally addressed.
But if Cisse is forced to leave United as a consequence of his beliefs, Pardew’s depleted options ahead of the new campaign will suffer a further blow.
There is, of course, a precedent in place for such a case, with Malian Muslim Frederic Kanoute refusing to wear a shirt sponsored by an online betting firm whilst with La Liga side Sevilla in 2006.
His protests were successful, and non-branded kit was issued for matchdays. But both Newcastle and Wonga, who signed a £24 million deal last year, seem reluctant to endorse such an agreement.
In a footballing sense, Cisse’s departure would throw the Magpies’ preseason plans into disarray. But diplomatically, the club’s refusal to bow to Cisse’s requests could leave them with some difficult questions to answer.
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