Jason Mohammad wants to talk, which will come as no surprise to observers of this most ubiquitous of broadcasters. After all, this is a man who as well as being the main presenter of BBC’s Final Score and occasional host of Match of the Day 2, has long been involved in the corporation’s coverage of snooker, rugby league, rugby union and athletics, among other sports. His voice, it is fair to say, is a frequently heard one.
Which is no bad thing. Mohammad is as engaging and eloquent as he is versatile and prolific, and those qualities are firmly on show as we speak via Zoom. But it is not sport that is up for discussion, or at least that is not the principal subject on Mohammad’s mind. Instead he wants to delve into religion, race and identity, weighty topics that have been fundamental to his life since childhood but that he only now feels completely comfortable addressing.
Why that is strikes at the heart of the story Mohammad has to tell. The son of a Pakistani father and a Welsh mother, he grew up a practising Muslim in Ely, officially Cardiff’s most deprived suburb. It was the 1980s and life was tough, providing challenges Mohammad not only had to overcome to achieve his dream of becoming a journalist but which led him to suppress his faith. Where there should have been unwavering pride there was fear, reluctance and, ultimately, deep emotional scars.
“People think Islamophobia is a new thing but I was being abused for being a Muslim when I was seven years old,” he says. “I was called a ‘Muzzie’ and the P-word and remember walking home from school one day and a kid spitting at me for no reason. That’s just what it was like back then for someone like me – the only Muslim kid in my school, one of very few Mohammads on my side of Cardiff, in a hard place where there were lots of racists around. The first time I saw a union flag it had ‘NF’ in the middle of it and was hanging out of a window near where I lived.
“And while I didn’t suffer racism every day I was constantly made aware I was different, and when you’re aware you’re different you feel it [racist abuse] could happen at any moment. That type of thing sticks with you and can damage you in adulthood. That was definitely the case for me, hence me feeling unable and unwilling to talk about my faith for many years.”
A turning point came in 2009 when Mohammad made a pilgrimage to Mecca as part of a documentary series for the Welsh-language TV channel S4C. It was literally a case of following in his father’s footsteps – he had visited Islam’s holiest city four years earlier – and for Mohammad the experience was as profound as he had hoped. He describes the trip as a “spiritual awakening”, providing him with the confidence and desire to be open about who he is and what he believes, something reinforced after the documentary was aired.
“I was nervous about it being shown because I didn’t think people would want to see someone who does sport on telly baring their soul in that way,” he says. “But I got hundreds of messages from people saying how much they had enjoyed the programme and how it had brought them to tears. That reaction made me realise people are interested in religion and spirituality and that there’s no need to hide my Pakistani heritage and how incredibly proud I am of it.”
There is no denying the ease with which Mohammad now talks about his faith. From his home in Cardiff, which he shares with his wife, Nicola, and their three children, he speaks effusively about that trip to Mecca 12 years ago, as well as about Ramadan, and in particular this year’s period of fasting, which ended in the middle of May. “It was difficult given the amount of broadcasting I do. At half-time on Final Score, for instance, there is a coffee round and, while the pundits I’m on with had a cup, I had to go without, which was really difficult as I love coffee.
“But you know what, something happens within – after the first couple of days you get swept along with focus and devotion and a strong connection with God is formed. That provided me with the strength to get through it.”
Mohammad’s journey has been deeply personal but it has also encouraged him to talk more broadly about race, specifically with regard to football. As someone who fell in love with the sport as a young boy watching Cardiff at Ninian Park and who continues to feel passionately about it, the 47-year-old firmly believes that more has to be done to tackle abuse on the pitch. “I would kick any team found guilty of having racist players out of European and international competitions immediately,” he says.
He also believes much remains to be done to tackle abuse that happens off the pitch. “I’ve had horrible comments on Twitter and what I can’t get my head around is why some people think it’s OK to abuse someone for simply doing his job, whether that be footballers like Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka or a football presenter like myself. I fully support any and all steps which stop that from happening.”
Mohammad’s reconnection with his faith and identity has also led him to become a speaker and campaigner within Wales’s Islamic community. He also recently returned to Ely to film a documentary about the area. “It’s still a hard place with a lot of anger, aggression and poverty,” he says. “But what’s struck me about going back is the huge amount of pride there is there – people from Ely are not ashamed to be from Ely, and neither should they be. These are working-class people who work hard for themselves and their families.”
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Mohammad’s own work ethic is beyond question. As well as hosting two radio shows – the morning show for Radio Wales and, alongside the Rev Kate Bottley, Good Morning Sunday for Radio 2 – there are his various sports gigs, which shortly will include hosting a Tokyo Olympics highlights programme. It will be the second Olympics Mohammad has covered for the BBC, having been part of its team at the 2012 Games and, quite rightly, his professional achievements mean a lot to him. They have been hard earned and they resonate in a manner that, given everything he has been through, is wholeheartedly cherished.
“I grew up watching the likes of Des Lynam and Steve Ryder and that’s all I ever wanted to do: present sport on TV and radio,” he says. “But I was constantly told it wouldn’t happen for me, that a boy called Mohammad from one of the toughest areas in the United Kingdom, if not Europe, couldn’t make it at the BBC. But I kept believing, kept grafting, and eventually I made it.
“That’s something I truly appreciated after a friend said to me: ‘You do realise you’re the first Muslim presenter of Match of the Day, and for Muslim kids to see someone like you present one of the most iconic shows on television, that’s massive. You’ve given them hope that they can achieve their own dreams’. I’d never thought about that and, while it’s a big responsibility, it’s also an honour and makes me even more proud of who I am.”