At 3pm on Sunday, Hazem El Masri will run onto the world’s worst footy ground to play his final home game. Sydney’s ANZ Stadium (Or Glebe Morgue, as we call it) is an embarrassing venue for such an occasion, but we’ll defer that argument for the sake of keeping the mood upbeat.

El Masri at home with his family: more of a community leader than a footballer.

For the blue-and-white army in the distant stands, Hazem’s farewell will be something akin to the retirement of a beloved community leader.

Now in the month of Ramadan, Hazem will take no food or water between dawn and dark on game day.

When he pots one of his trademark two-pointers from the sideline, he will shun the trainer’s water bottle and run back to his mark. The experts tell him he could lose 4kg during the game, but discipline and sacrifice have defined his career and he will do it easily.

He is a deeply religious man who doesn’t waste his words. As a devout Muslim he doesn’t drink, doesn’t relieve himself in hotel corridors and doesn’t end up in court trying to explain how his girlfriend’s face got in the way of a schooner glass.

When the Bulldogs rape scandal engulfed the club in 2004, we didn’t need a DNA test to tell us Hazem wasn’t involved. On the rare occasion he spoke out against being stereotyped – when he was harassed by police while talking to a friend on a park bench – the tendency was to believe him.

He showed it was possible to be a high-profile Muslim without being divisive, a lesson Anthony Mundine either ignored or was too simple to grasp early in his career.

It’s not easy to be a kid of Lebanese descent in Sydney and for many in the city’s south-west, where the Bulldogs rule, Hazem has provided hope and purpose during his 13 years on the wing.

“As a young kid from a Lebanese background in the 80s I grew up following the Bulldogs and attending games at Belmore,” Dogs fan Fayssal Sari wrote yesterday.

“I never imagined that I’d be cheering someone who reflected my background, my beliefs and best of all my beloved team. Most will remember you as a great rugby league player, I choose to remember you as the person who best represented me.”

You can’t buy that sort of goodwill in a year when NRL players have dominated the morning court lists in Sydney.

As a footballer, Hazem has his flaws. He’s relatively short – not an advantage in an era of the game when halfbacks instinctively kick across field for monstrous outside backs to touch down out wide.

He also moves more slowly than the traffic up Haldon St Lakemba at the end of Ramadan, but a lack of natural speed has taught him to run the angles and more times than not he will beat a defender close to the line.

Of course, it’s the sublime goalkicking that will see him retire as rugby league’s highest point scorer. There was no better example of it than in 2002, when El Masri kicked a screamer after from the sideline after the final siren to beat the Andrew Johns-led Newcastle Knights after the siren.

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.

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15 comments

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    • Jimbo says:

      08:06am | 28/08/09

      In June 2000, while Souths were out of the comp, I and a group of Lebanese friends organised a fundraiser for 400+ people in Bankstown. We had about 15 Souths legends from the past 50 years as guests of honour - from Bernie Purcell to Bob McCarthy to Tricky Trindall. As I was collecting tickets at the door, I saw Hazem el Masri waitng in line. I couldn’t believe he’d heard about the night and decided to turn up and show his support for the Rabbitohs’ fightback. I made sure the MC mentiond him and thanked him, but there was no need - everybody knew he was there pretty quickly. From that moment on, I knew Haz was a legend. Maybe not a Rabbitohs legend, but one we’d love to claim nevertheless.

    • pete says:

      08:46am | 28/08/09

      I know nothing about rugby league, I dont follow it at all, but I know a man of honour and integrity when I see one.

    • Mark says:

      08:59am | 28/08/09

      I’m not a Bulldogs fan, however I have had nothing but respect for this man. He is a legend of the game, and a shining light of what it means to be role model. He will be missed.

    • Sarah Ayoub says:

      10:40am | 28/08/09

      As a Bulldogs fan, a passionate Aussie with a proud Lebanese Maronite Catholic background, and a postgraduate research student who is specialising in the portrayal of Arab-Australians in the media, I am sorry to see Hazem El-Masri leave the game on a number of levels and for many a reason.

      When the majority of young Middle-Eastern males were marginalised and unfairly stereotyped as a result of the actions of the minority, I believe it was the likes of Hazem that instilled in them a belief that they can crawl out of their pigeon-holes and truly make something of themselves.

      As my research progresses, I continue to see more of a need for role models such as El-Masri for the young males of the Middle-Eastern community, especially when, as you mention, there are those who do not wear their personal, religious and racial pride in a manner that is just as beneficial for social cohesion as it is for themselves.

      He may have earned his ‘magic’ moniker by being a heck of a player, team-mate and point scorer, but in reality his magic was more about educating the young people of his Muslim community about the importance of being true to who you are while maintaining a respect for their Australian homeland.

      I hope they all learnt from him, and I wish him and his family all the best for the future. We’ll be sorry to see you go, El-Magic.

    • R.E.L. says:

      11:10am | 28/08/09

      Hazem is undoubtedly a role model not only for young Muslim Australians, but for all young rugby league fans.
      He has shown that one can live in both worlds of devout service to God and sports without compromising one’s dedication to either. Hazem’s high profile has enabled him to use it to show this is possible; that you don’t have to be a hooligan just because you’re a professional sportsman.

      I know many devoutly religious young people (including myself) who - whilst not blessed with Hazems talent and not of the same faith group as him - have lived in both the worlds of sport and Godliness for some time and see no conflict between the two.

      As one religious luminary put it (not a direct quote):
      As in sport, in life one cannot move sluggishly. We must keep moving with vitality, running and jumping to overcome the challenge. This type of service is carried out not just with the brain or heart (though thought and emotion are important) but with the action of the feet.

      Thank you Hazem and may God bless you to continue your good work in the community.

    • Lebs Rock! says:

      06:33pm | 28/08/09

      @Sarah Ayoub

      Gee I like Hazem and all and I think he’s a fabulous player and great role model but woah, steady on there!

      If you’re writing a post-graduate thingy you might want to know that there are lots of terrific role models in Lebanese communities who aren’t even football players. They’re doctors, teachers, lawyers, writers, business leaders. They don’t make the headlines because their goal-kicking isn’t up to scratch and where’s the news in ‘Leb Doctor graduates with Honours’. None!!  Why can’t they teach them how to kick goals at medical school?!  Even so, they are regarded highly in their communities as leaders and role models. Imagine that!

      Also the Leb experience varies across the many different communities in Sydney so perhaps you’re the one doing the pigeon-holing there when you talk about ‘the majority’ of Leb males crawling out of pigeon-holes because of Hazem. Sheesh .. who are these timid men? These sad oppressed victims? Not any Lebs I know! Their problems are often the same as those of any other young men in Sydney; and they’re not necessarily problems that relate to their ethnicity. Well, no 2 Irishmen are the same, are they?

      I wish you well in your research but I do hope it’s a little more reliant on facts and less on the rhetoric of the wog underdog.

      It’s not my experience or view of the world in which I live here in Sydney and frankly I find it more than a little patronising.

    • stephen says:

      07:37pm | 28/08/09

      Mr Hazem El Masri and Mr Alan Langer have to be the the two best players
      ....

    • stephen says:

      07:53pm | 28/08/09

      And ?

    • stephen says:

      08:05pm | 28/08/09

      ..., And… ?

    • Zehier Hijazi of Brisbane says:

      08:08pm | 28/08/09

      Hazam - fantastic example for all sports people…...

      “Your ideas for battling booze ‘crisis’” (news.com.au).

      Ask Hasam, he’lll tell you how to stop the problems. Agree with Stephen, Alphie and Hazem are the best, but please dont forget Wally…

      Sarah Ayoub (no comment)

    • Sydney Lawrence says:

      07:03am | 29/08/09

      I do not follow football but Hazem El Masri has made a big impression on all Australians. He is a good man.

    • Ro says:

      09:59pm | 29/08/09

      @ Lebs Rock

      Were you that itchy, could you really not help yourself???
      Hater, hater, hater! Take a chill pill and relax, sit back and just enjoy!

    • Libnani says:

      09:54am | 31/08/09

      I live in melbourne and do not even follow NRL - know nothing about it, However,  I too know a great man and role model when I see one. As a young lebanese muslim male, it’s inspiring to see how successfull one can be in this great country. Staying true to your faith and maintaing a postive attitude of success is just a small part of what you have been an example of. I have had to fight stereo typing in my career and I never allowed it to get in the way of my success.

      Hazim ,I thank you for being a excellent example of a great aussie muslim! Inshallah you have inspired many down a path of success. All the best in the futre!

    • weekly job news says:

      06:20am | 22/10/10

      Mention Die,procedure behaviour direct university strange appeal near number application bloody hill huge flow recognise version morning say care spend sentence broad intend thought last library popular face transport sense move acquire cost rise seek half display general consist remember cup difficulty brain user description policy include thing incident wash cut role style close half raise bill keep local direction bridge match myself concern appoint contrast lead remember aspect future secretary application achievement basis trip display deliver notice construction sentence threat look track real bring importance chance safety yard power concentrate violence property contain enter bone

    • pruppyfieli says:

      06:55pm | 24/01/11

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