“Up there, Hilaly!” It is, as Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy says, “a headline just waiting to be written”. And that’s exactly what Penberthy’s paper did today:

The spiritual leader of Australia’s Muslims, Sheik Taj el-Dene Elhilaly, has joined in the football grand final fever hype – and he’s backing the Sydney Swans all the way.

There’s no Sydney team in the Rugby League grand final. Sin City’s hopes rest with the Swans – but even before the bounce the Tele and Sydney’s Muslim community have both scored goals.

The story was 12 months in gestation, Penberthy tells Crikey. Last year, when former AFL player and Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, spoke ex-cathedra that God was on the Swans’ side, the Telegraph tried to “use Aussie Rules as a vehicle for a multi-faith celebration.”

This year the Sheik played ball. “He’s a real sports nut,” Penberthy says, “and a mad Bulldogs fan. We just thought it was a good natured bit of fun in one of the most enjoyable weeks of the year.”

Penberthy dispatched Arabic-speaking reporter Evelyn Yamine to travel to the Lakemba mosque. Elhilaly grabbed the footy. Penberthy got a great tabloid yarn – and the Sheik demonstrated “he’s got a pretty good kicking action”.

Lebanese Moslems Association president Kayser Trad backs the yarn. “The mufti has always been a very keen sports fan. In his own right he’s a very good soccer and volleyball player. Put a ball in front and he’ll start kicking it around. He was playing regional representative soccer back in Egypt and still loves his sport. They wanted to take a picture of him just wearing a scarf, but he insisted on showing that he’s not just spectator and so he participated.”

Up there, Hilaly!

Peter Fray

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