Newcastle United's £24m shirt sponsorship deal with Wonga.com was engulfed in fresh controversy last night when the club's Muslim players were warned that wearing the new shirts would infringe Sharia law.
The intervention from the Muslim Council of Britain will heap further pressure on the club as it seeks to deflect widespread criticism after unveiling a four-year deal with the short-term loan company.
Of the Newcastle team who took the field against Manchester United on Sunday, four are practising Muslims – Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé, Cheick Tioté and Hatem Ben Arfa.
Wonga, whose deal begins next season, drew criticism from MPs for the level of interest charged on its 30-day loans. If a Newcastle supporter took out a loan to purchase a £49.99 club shirt, he would have to repay £71.92 after one month – a rate that would be equivalent to 4,212 per cent over a year.
The club did its best to offset criticism of the new deal by announcing that the Sports Direct Arena would revert to its original name of St James' Park. Wonga also promised to invest heavily in Newcastle's academy and the club's foundation scheme, which helps 15- and 16-year-olds find work.
However, the deal drew a stinging attack from Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, who said: "I'm appalled that they would sign a deal with a legal loan shark. It's a sad indictment of the profit-at-any-price culture at Newcastle United. We are fighting hard to tackle legal and illegal loan sharking and having a company like this right across the city on every football shirt that's sold undermines all our work."
While it is accepted that Wonga has not behaved improperly it came in for further criticism from the Muslim Council of Britain. Under Sharia law, a Muslim is not allowed to benefit from lending money or receiving money from someone. This means that earning interest is not allowed.
A spokesman for Wonga said: "We listened over the last three days and we saw what really matters to the fans. Football is an emotional sport and it is really important to them. We listened to what they wanted and that is why we did it."
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