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FIFA 21-backed Ramadan football league received Home Office support

Birmingham's Midnight Ramadan League, featured in award-winning EA Sports advert, was established with support from firm involved in covert counter-extremism campaigns
Leicester City's Hamza Choudhury features in an EA Sports ad championing the Midnight Ramadan League (adam&eveDDB)

A Ramadan football tournament for young Muslims in Birmingham, which was promoted through the FIFA 21 video game, has been supported by the Home Office as part of its counter-extremism strategic communications programme, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The British government department is refusing - on national security grounds - to release information about its involvement in setting up or promoting the Midnight Ramadan League.

It says that to do so “would make the UK or its citizens more vulnerable to a national security threat”.

Pressed further, a Home Office spokesperson told MEE that it did not fund the league, but did help "a diverse range of civil society groups" committed to "making our country a safer place to live" through its Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU).

 The league, which stages matches at night to accommodate players who are fasting, featured this month in an “unashamedly Muslim” advert broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a campaign by EA Sports, which makes the FIFA series, to encourage young British Asians to get involved in football.

The advert shows a young man sharing an Iftar meal and praying with his family before cycling through Birmingham’s Small Heath neighbourhood to join a floodlit football match.

It also features Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury, one of only a few British Asian footballers to have played in the Premier League, mixing real-life action with in-game footage from FIFA 21. EA Sports has also released a Midnight Ramadan League kit on its FIFA Ultimate Team platform.

Industry magazine Campaign called the advert a "beacon of authentic storytelling". 

'Football-loving Brummie'

Launched in 2017, the Midnight Ramadan League returned this month after it was cancelled last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Sixteen teams compete each Friday and Saturday night in two divisions on temporary outdoor seven-a-side pitches.

The league has been described as the “brainchild” of Obayed Hussain, an imam and football coach who is a former equality officer at the Birmingham Football Association.

Hussain is also the chairman of Saltley Stallions, a nearby local football club set up in the aftermath of widespread riots in 2011 “to support young people… and bring them together through their love of football,” according to the club’s website.

In an interview with the Birmingham Mail in 2018, Hussain said that while the league was about “providing a space for Muslims to let off steam and kick a ball around after a long day’s fasting”, it also sought to challenge misconceptions about Ramadan.

“People often ask me how I balance the two: being a football-loving Brummie and a God-serving Muslim,” he said.

“The midnight football tournament is a great way to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims alike to have a game of football and tackle some of these misconceptions.”

Behavioural change campaigns

But Middle East Eye has established that the league was launched with the involvement of Harry Savill, an account manager who works on strategic communications projects at advertising agency M&C Saatchi.

Savill’s current role involves “working on behavioural change and social impact campaigns in East Africa and the Middle East”.

According to Savill's LinkedIn page, between 2016 and 2018 he worked for Horizon PR, a subsidiary company set up jointly by M&C Saatchi and Breakthrough Media, which both have close links to the Home Office.

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M&C Saatchi runs communications campaigns for the British government. It also provides support to organisations through the Home Office’s Building a Stronger Britain Together counter-extremism programme.

Breakthrough Media, which is now known as Zinc Network, has run covert campaigns intended to “effect behavioural and attitudinal change” among young British Muslims for RICU.

Both Savill and Hussain have acknowledged Savill’s work on the Midnight Ramadan League in public comments on social media.

Hussain told MEE that the league is sponsored by EA Sports and local businesses and does not receive government funding.

"We do receive government support with communications to help publicise other work we do. We are really proud of the MRL and been pleased by the response its got this year," he said.

"We are very proud of the services we deliver in Birmingham that enable young people to come together and play football. 

In a tweet sharing the FIFA 21 advert, Savill said he had had "a lot of fun working on the early iterations of this awesome initiative".

On his LinkedIn page, Savill describes his interests as including “countering violent extremism” and “sport development projects”.

Details about his current work for M&C Saatchi were revealed when he was named as a young ambassador by the Marylebone Cricket Club Foundation in February.

Savill has also been involved in Afghan Connection, a UK government-backed organisation running sport and education projects in Afghanistan. Since 2016, he has been “working in strategic communications at M&C Saatchi, working on behavioural change and positive impact campaigns in both the UK and abroad”, according to the Afghan Connection website.

MEE asked Savill and M&C Saatchi about the firm's work on the Midnight Ramadan League. A spokesperson for M&C Saatchi said: "We do not comment on any client work."

The Home Office has refused to release information about its support for the Midnight Ramadan League.

In a response from the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), part of the Home Office, to an MEE Freedom of Information (FOI) request, officials cited a national security exemption absolving it from confirming or denying whether it holds specific material. 

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“Confirming or denying whether we hold information in relation to the query asked could reveal the extent of the Department’s involvement in matters relating to national security. Furthermore to confirm or deny the Department’s involvement could put individuals or national security at risk,” it said. 

In a further request submitted last month, MEE asked the Home Office to provide a copy of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism’s evaluation report of the Midnight Ramadan League in 2018 and 2019.

In a reply on 19 April, the Home Office said it was considering the request but needed to extend the 20-working day deadline for a response to consider whether the information should be withheld for national security reasons.

MEE pressed the Home Office for further details about its support for the Midnight Ramadan League prior to publication of this story.

A Home Office spokesperson told MEE that RICU supported organistions "led by brilliant individuals who are committed to improving lives in their communities, and to making our country a safer place to live".

“We do not fund the Midnight Ramadan League project," the spokesperson said.

“RICU helps a diverse range of civil society groups deliver professional communications that more effectively reach potential beneficiaries of their work. It empowers them to tell their inspiring stories of grassroots projects in more impactful ways, and in turn to connect with new audiences”.

Football projects

The Home Office has been involved in other football projects targeted at young Muslims in predominantly British Asian communities.

Altus Football, which ran in 2018 and 2019, was a programme which offered free training and mentoring for 16 to 18-year-olds in East London, Birmingham, Bradford and Derby, and culminated in a final at St George’s Park, the English national team’s training centre.

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The project was led by the Kashif Siddiqi Foundation. Kashif Siddiqi is a Pakistani international and English lower-league footballer described in The Sun newspaper as “the British Muslim who champions the beautiful game as the ultimate weapon against terrorism”.

Obayed Hussain was also involved in Altus Football as “Ambassador and Birmingham area project lead”, according to the project’s website. The Home Office’s involvement is revealed in the website’s privacy policy which states: “We receive campaigning support from the Home Office who, as a result, is a joint data controller with us.”

MEE asked the Home Office in a Freedom of Information request for details of the support it had provided for Altus Football and the data it held from the project. The request was denied, citing the national security exemption.

MEE also understands that UK government contractors linked to RICU have been involved in covert counter-radicalisation programmes in France that have been developed around football coaching.

'Buttloads of chai'

The Midnight Ramadan League’s collaboration with EA Sports comes after the games developer and advertising agency adam&eveDDB last year won a Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising award in response to the broadcaster’s invitation for pitches “focused on the authentic representation of UK Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic cultures within TV advertising”.

The award included airtime worth £1m on Channel 4. Film director Bassam Tariq, who directed the advert, has described it as an “unapologetically Muslim commercial”.

“It wasn’t enough that we worked closely with the Midnight Ramadan League co-founder Obayed Hussain, but we prayed, broke bread and drank buttloads of chai together,” Tariq said in a Channel 4 press release.

It is unclear whether players and other stakeholders in the league are aware of the Home Office's support for the project. MEE put that question to Hussain, the Home Office and M&C Saatchi but none commented on the matter.