I teach in China, Italy and the UK, and when my students start talking about who my sporting hero is, I always say, without hesitation… Hazem El Masri. Not the greatest player, probably the greatest goalkicker, but more importantly, one of the greatest men on or off the field. A tribute to real Muslims, immigrants, loyalty, discipline, family values and the Bulldogs. You are a legend Hazem El Masri, we will miss you!
It is fair to say such an opinion is pretty much universal here in Sydney. See for example El Masri’s army salutes its inspirational leader.
El Masri’s popularity isn’t restricted to the boys who, like him, have Muslim backgrounds. He appeals to them all. Helal is a Muslim boy, as is nine-year-old Adam Abdulwahab. Eight-year-old Andrei Bakhos and eight-year-old twins Michael and George Tabet are not Muslims, but it makes no difference. They all love El Masri.
Most of them have met the Bulldogs winger because he gives so much of his spare time to the community and they enjoy the way he kicks goals from everywhere and scores tries, but perhaps more importantly they can tell he is a good person.
“I hope he wins the comp this year,” Andrei said. “He deserves that. I follow the Bulldogs. My dad’s a member of the football club, so we go to all the home games. Hazem’s my favourite player. I play wing or fullback, but I want to be a winger when I grow up.”
In the Brisbane Courier-Mail Mike Colman writes:
… Some want him to enter politics.
When I told my wife that she said, “Well, he’s got my vote” and for my wife to say that about a rugby league player, much less a Bulldog, is saying something.
Hazem and his wife were so delightful it was hard not to feel uplifted by the experience.
One thing summed him up perfectly. After Fatty Vautin had urged league supporters to get along to ANZ Stadium this afternoon to “say thank you” for all the pleasure he had given them over the years, Hazem insisted on having the last word.
“It’s not really about people saying thank you to me,” he said, “it’s about me saying thank you to them for all the support they’ve given me.”
The label doesn’t matter – league player, Bulldog, Muslim, human – it comes down to one thing: He’s one great role model.
Football great Steve Mortimer has this to say:
“It’s an absolute privilege to be mentioned in the same sentence as Hazem El Masri,” Mortimer said.
“For me, rugby league is the greatest game of all and it just seems with all the hardships we’ve been through, Hazem has been a shining light his entire career.
“He’s a silent hero, an unsung hero, who has played the most number of games for the Bulldogs and been a wonderful servant for rugby league.
“With his religion and his faith, he’s just an absolute role model not only as a player on the football field, but as an Australian citizen as well.
“I’m proud to say I know him.
“He’s a very humble man and an absolute star.”
There will be many fine things said about Hazem by footballers, coachers, pundits and the Premier in the coming weeks, but you get the feeling it all washes over the kid from Tripoli who made Sydney his home at age 10.
He’s playing for are the kids in blonde-brick apartment blocks around Bankstown and Punchbowl, the ones who attract police attention quicker than an Everlast hoodie.
Very few people can claim to have made a real impact on their community. But when tensions between Lebanese and Anglo Sydneysiders spilled into the streets during the Cronulla riots, it was Hazem who played the crucial role in bringing his community back from the brink. Unlike some Muslim clerics who should have known better, Hazem spoke the language of respect and not revenge. With hindsight, we all recognise things could have been so much worse without people like him.
When Hazem El Magic runs out on Sunday, we’ll honour a footballer, peacemaker, teacher and philanthropist.
And here he was on Stateline in 2004:
Here at Holroyd High School in Sydney’s west — a school with a large number of students who are refugees — he’s come to draw the winning raffle for a school fundraiser.
But his visit is more than just a celebrity appearance.
In this discussion with the school football team the conversation soon turns to one of the boy’s experience of being discriminated against for being Lebanese and Muslim.
HAZEM EL MASRI: The whole community suffers because of a small minority, you know, and what upsets you sometimes is that the culture and the religion and all of that doesn’t promote such a thing but we end up copping a fair bit against it.
I always say to people, “The best way to go about it is let your actions do the talking.”
You know, around the footy and that and a lot of the guys know anything happens outside I don’t get teased about it or I don’t — because they know the type of person I am, the lifestyle I’m living.
I’m trying to lead by example and show them that’s how it’s done, basically.
Sydney has been fortunate in having this man, his wife Arwa, and their family in our midst. From the man himself:
Kerry Stewart: How about Hazem el Masri.
Boys: Yes, he’s footy, best kicker in the world.
Kerry Stewart: Is he impressive, do you think?
Boys: Yes, yes.
Kerry Stewart: Why?
Mohammed Nurjaman: Because if you can get religion into the way of his other play, like he’s the only Muslim in the NRL, and he’s a good player, and he’s not there to show them that he’s Muslim, he shows that he plays good football.
Kerry Stewart: But I think he brings his religion to the game.
Boy: He brings religion to the game, yes.
Mohammed Nurjaman: You never see him in punch-ups. Yes, he always keeps it to himself. That’s what Muslims learn from their religion.
Hazem el Masri: Well look, I didn’t choose to be a role model. To me, I don’t like to sort of call that as a role model, I prefer to just to go out there and let my actions do the talking. I try to live a wholesome lifestyle. Early on, I had to take that stance of making sure this is what I’m about you know, the fasting, the praying, the eating Halal food for example, not drinking alcohol, the temptation of ladies, you name it, I try to have fun as well but everything within the limits. I love socialising with my friends and I love going out and I love spending time with my family and all that. But at the end of the day I’m my own person, I try to as you say, set the right example for these kids and hope that they can follow the same footsteps. And it’s a matter of as well, because all the misleading coverage and the generalising out there especially of the Muslim and the Lebanese community, that I’ve taken that stance to show everyone pretty much, that we’re not all the same, everybody’s got their bad and good in them….
Yes, his wife wears the hijab — her choice, not his, as she saw it as marking the next step in her religion: she adopted it about a year after her marriage, very much her own choice for her own reasons. (That was in an excellent Good Weekend profile of El Masri in this Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald — not online.)
The man — and indeed the family — is a living, breathing rebuttal of all that paranoia out there about the Muslims in our midst.
Finally, read A Winger and a Prayer – Transcript from Australian Story 2007.