English soccer is poised to change one of its oldest traditions following an awkward moment at the end of Manchester City's dramatic victory at Newcastle on Sunday.
Yaya Toure was presented with a ceremonial magnum of champagne for his man-of-the-match performance in the 2-0 triumph that left City just one win away from clinching its first English Premier League title.
Toure, however, refused to accept the bottle and immediately handed it over to teammate Joleon Lescott. Toure is a devout Muslim who does not drink alcohol.
"I don't drink because I am a Muslim," Toure told Lescott. "So you keep it."
Champagne is given as a matter of routine to the outstanding player in any televised game, a tradition that's been in place ever since the start of English soccer's modern era when the EPL was set up in 1992. It also has historic roots, with many clubs also giving a similar award after each home game, with a designated player being selected by the match sponsor and receiving a bottle of bubbly.
Even before the incident involving Toure – the EPL's highest-paid player with a base salary of around $25 million – the EPL had already considered altering its policy on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.
"We sought advice from religious groups before concluding that the champagne was treated as a highly-coveted award," said a spokesman in a statement.
It now seemly like that the champagne award will remain in place in most cases, but the league is now planning to add a new element to the presentation, by giving man-of-the-match recipients a plaque to go along with the alcohol.
In instances where the player in question is of a religion that does not tolerate alcohol consumption, as is the case with Toure, or where the player has certain personal circumstances (such as having battled alcoholism or been convicted of drink-driving), only the plaque would be awarded.
The decision reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the English league, which has seen a huge influx of players from every continent over the past decade. Some of City's most influential players are Muslim, including Toure, his brother Kolo, France's Samir Nasri and Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko. The club has even dedicated a prayer room to cater to its mix of cultures.
Newcastle is also considering adding prayer facilities as some of its leading players, like Papiss Demba Cisse, Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa all practice the Islamic religion.
"Religion plays an important role for some of our players," Newcastle manager Alan Pardew told the Daily Mail. "You have to respect that some players have a different religion to most of the footballers in this country. We need different facilities for them. It is important that whatever the religion, we take care of it and understand it."
Toure's two goals against Newcastle took City to the brink of the championship and eased the nerves of the club's fans, who have suffered for so long in the shadow of local rival Manchester United. The last time City was crowned champion of English soccer was in 1967-68, well before the start of the EPL era.
One more victory, at home to struggling Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, would be enough to secure the trophy. City has won 17 and drawn one of its 18 EPL home games so far this season and is considered an overwhelming favorite.
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