Man of God whose greatest deeds are done off the pitch
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.
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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