Fifa’s campaign about the Midnight Ramadan League is a step forward for two industries – advertising and professional football – that have long fallen short in their representation of British Asians.
EA Sports’ campaign for Fifa 21, created by Adam & Eve/DDB, debuted on Friday (23 April) on Channel 4 after scooping the broadcaster’s annual Diversity in Advertising Award. The competition’s 2020 theme was the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in advertising and the winning campaign received £1m worth of commercial airtime.
Fifa’s ad features the Midnight Ramadan League, a real grassroots football club based in Birmingham. The league was set up in 2018 by Obayed Hussain with Saltley Stallions Football Club to help Muslims continue playing football during the month of Ramadan. Matches take place every Friday and Saturday night between Iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims break the daily fast) and Suhoor (the early morning meal that comes before fasting).
In the film, a real Midnight Ramadan League player called Qaiser prays and breaks the fast at home with his family before going out for a nighttime game. When his energy wanes, he is visited by a professional football hero, Leicester City midfielder and Fifa ambassador Hamza Choudhury, who encourages him: “If I can do this, so can you.”
Qaiser gets up again and after his team’s victory, rushes home to play with his little sister, who also loves football.
The campaign is significant because the representation of British Asians in professional football is quite lacking. In 2020, just 10 (or 0.25%) of the UK’s 4,000 professional footballers were British Asians, compared with 7% of the general population. The figure in professional leagues is also out of sync with recreational football; British Asians make up 9.7% of people in the UK who play football recreationally.
“We were like, how can that possibly be? I’m Pakistani and all the boys in my family and in the community love football, but if I had to name a Pakistani footballer I wouldn’t be able to,” A&E/DDB creative Selma Ahmed, who wrote the Fifa ad, says. “If you have a generation who don’t see themselves on the football field or see anyone like themselves, how are they meant to aspire to it?”
The ad industry, too, often neglects to represent and speak to British Asians and Muslims. While some brands such as Tesco have occasionally depicted Muslim people, “in the UK, Muslims are portrayed on TV in such a particular way,” Ahmed observes. “Everything feels so cliche, as if through the lens of someone who isn’t Muslim.”
That is why, with the Fifa brief, the team at A&E/DDB set out to address this issue and make a campaign that was “truly authentic, not voyeuristic,” Ahmed says.
The agency brought in a director, Bassam Tariq, who is known for his realistic and raw portrayals of Muslim cultures. He co-wrote his 2020 feature film debut, Mogul Mowgli, with actor and music artist Riz Ahmed, who also stars in the film about a British Pakistani rapper who grapples with an autoimmune disease.
“When I watched Mogul Mowgli, it felt like home,” Ahmed says. “[Tariq] is someone who is within the culture and completely gets it.”
Tariq noticed something different about the Fifa script, as well: it didn’t shy away from painting a genuine and rich portrait of an Asian community, he says.
“I was quite scared because you don’t get something like this given to you often. It's such a gift and you want to make sure you can honour it. I was anxious about how to do this correctly,” Tariq says. “[A&E/DDB] were really great and pushed me to make sure we were being as authentic as possible.”
That authenticity comes through in the finest details of the ad, from the casting to the food the family eats in one of the early scenes – the mother had actually cooked those dishes for Iftar before the scene was shot, A&E/DDB art director Genevieve Gransden points out. Along with actually playing in the Midnight Ramadan League, Qaiser was filmed in his own home with his real family.
“We needed this family to feel like a real dynamic. We were in Birmingham in the place where they live,” Ahmed says. “All of those small decisions – where on another shoot we might have just built a set, for example – made a difference.”
“We’ve all worked on shoots before where we can’t make any statements and everything is tightly controlled, but EA gave us so much room on this project. They really did us proud all the way to the end of the edit,” Gransden adds.
Other candid moments, such as when the family prays together, were essential to fully capture the characters and their community, Tariq says.
“Portraying prayer was really important. That’s the stuff that people usually shy away from because all those little symbols of authenticity and faith are quite charged. But to rob people of that is also taking away from who they are,” he says. “For brands to be open and accepting of that is so important.”
A key difference in this campaign was ensuring that the diversity of the people working behind the scenes mirrored the diversity on screen, as well. At the beginning of the process, A&E/DDB met with Pulse Films, the production company, and requested that "as many people as possible are of colour on set", Ahmed says.
Much of the team who worked on the ad – including two of the Fifa clients, the music composer Ben Khan, the film editor Fouad Gaber and even the runners on set – had a personal understanding of Muslim culture and community.
“Being on set and not being the minority was one of the most refreshing experiences of my life. It’s insane to look around and only see brown people – it felt like being at home,” Ahmed says. “I thought, this is what it must feel like to be white in this industry.”
The diversity behind the scenes meant that the team were able to challenge each other and ensure nothing in the ad felt false or cliched. For example, when Tariq was considering a certain track, Ahmed pointed out to him that it sounded more Indian, which wouldn’t have fit because the family portrayed was Pakistani. “All those subtle differences matter,” she says.
“Throughout my career I’ve worked on sets that are predominantly white and it’s meant that I’m often seen as an ‘expert of the community,’ which is also dangerous,” Tariq says. “But when you have so much diversity from other people who can challenge you, it opened my eyes to how I could be doing things differently.”
He calls the result of their collective efforts an "unapologetically Muslim commercial".
Beyond the TV ad, the campaign will extend to a comic book about Hamza Choudhury’s life that will be distributed to schools, as well as Midnight Ramadan League kit, flags and other assets that Fifa players can use in their games.
Its bigger aim is to "create a whole new set of role models", Ahmed says, "so more people can see themselves and be inspired."
The work has already inspired Qaiser, the teenager who stars in the ad, in an unexpected way. At the end of the shoot, he told some of the creatives on set, “‘I had no idea this job [of making ads] existed’,” Ahmed recalls. “He said he told all his mates in Birmingham. He’s now going to be doing a running job for a big director.”
“I was exactly the same eight years ago,” she continues. “The ad industry is so closed off. It’s why opening up these tiny opportunities to people – and then valuing their experience when they get into the industry – is so important.”