In soccer country Brazil, religion usually stays off the playing field. The teams, their colors and their crowds clash, but the sacred seldom comes into play, except when it's time to give thanks for the victory. At Al Shabab, however, things work differently and religion, in this case Islam, plays a major role in the lives of the players in Brazil's first Muslim soccer team.
The club was founded in May this year by businessman Gaber Arraji. A son to Lebanese parents and a follower of Islamism, Arraji says that for a few years he had been aware of the lack of Muslim players in the Brazilian scene.
He then had the idea to establish a team whose foundation comprised Islamic believers. With backing from former Atlético do Paraná player Gustavo Caiche, the project gained shape and was promoted at Islamic schools, and then the first players came up.
Now, Al Shabab, Arabic for "The Young Ones," has 78 athletes, all under 20 years of age. Only 12 are Muslims, but the rules for training and interaction between athletes adhere to the principles of Islamic religion, which include prayer, controlled foods, and respect towards one's colleagues.
"The non-Muslim ones observe the times of prayer. The food nowadays is very controlled, because Muslims do not eat pork. The combination of Muslims and non-Muslims is very harmonious, and they even get curious about the religion," says Arraji, who is now the team's president.
The group also includes a sheikh who is in charge of conducting prayers before training sessions. "Some even want to learn what it takes to revert to Islam," says Arraji of the non-Muslim players.
The Muslims call the conversion of followers of other religions "reversal," for they believe that embracing Islam means returning to a natural state of the human being. "We point them towards promotional material; we do not impose anything on anyone. We will normally refer them to some book, some website," he explains.
Aside from prayer and food, the religion also influences the players' demeanor. The Islamic doctrine comes into play in and out of the field. The relationship is one of respect and loving one's neighbor.
Of course, soccer is a contact sport, it is violent at times, but that doesn't authorize you to denigrate people's images, to call them stupid; the players do not engage in this type of offensive behavior. If they do, they are punished with push ups, squats," says the president.
At this time, the team is preparing to play Copa São Paulo de Juniores (São Paulo Juniors Cup), due in January 2013. Because it has yet to become affiliated with the São Paulo Soccer Federation (FPA), the team has partnered up with São José, from the same state, so as to be entitled to a slot in the contest. Al Shabab will take up the opening of the Vale do Paraíba region-based São José in the tournament.
Until the championship begins, the 30 enrolled players are training at the Guarujá municipal stadium, on the coast of São Paulo state. "We intend to become a federation team and enter a few championships. If our partnership with São José works out, we will play the A2 series of the São Paulo championship with them.
"We want to, but that will largely depend on the arrangements between Al Shabab and São José, and on help from the Islamic community, because you can't have soccer without money. We need to stand out within the community so that we can do well," says Arraji.
Without its own headquarters, Al Shabab is looking for sponsorships so it can start growing. The president of the team says he is already in talks with some companies.
"One is in the textile industry, and the others are Islamic organizations that want to help somehow. We favor Muslim or Arab companies when it comes to supporting and sponsoring the team," he says.
"I believe Al Shabab needs to stand on its own feet from now on. We are trying to attain a good level of competitiveness so we can offer it overseas, to see whether some Islamic or Arab team will take us up as a brother team in Brazil.
"After that we will look for our own training center. Right now, Al Shabab is interested the most in exchanging players: sending Brazilian players to Arab countries and bringing them over too," says the businessman.
The team is slowly harnessing a crucial piece of support to any soccer team: the fans. "Right now, Facebook is a great weapon. People are already asking for team shirts, asking when the games will be. We send them the timetables for our games, the shirts are being made right now, as we get our sponsors, and I believe that soon the mosques will be able to sell Al Shabab products to the community," says Arraji.
From a born-again Christian family, Eduardo Carrilho, 18 years of age, has trained with Botafogo from Ribeirão Preto, and got to Al Shabab through a referral from a friend. "You learn a bit of their culture, even if you're not a Muslim," he says. He claims to not be bothered by the team's religious habits. "This is what they do, and you need to respect it."
Carrilho hopes that the contest in January will open up new vistas in his career. "I hope to play well in Copa São Paulo and get a bigger team. Copa São Paulo is a shop window," he says.
After training at three traditional teams, Jabaquara, São Caetano and Santos, Mohammed Orra, aged 17, has been with Al Shabab for seven months now. A Muslim, he points out the differences between his current team and the previous ones.
"The programming is different. During Ramadan (the holy month in which Muslims fast during the day), we trained in the evening so as not to play on an empty stomach," he says. "The food is different, there is no pork. And there is never practice at praying time, so the two don't conflict," he says.
In the field, however, soccer is always soccer. "The playing is the same, be it here or at any other team. It's all the same," he says.