Today, Omar Momani is arguably the most renowned football cartoonist on the planet. As the artist in residence at Goal, the world’s largest online football publication, his work is routinely seen by millions as every week he soaks himself in the most noteworthy events on and off the pitch and uses them as fuel to churn out piece after beguiling piece, be they charming caricatures, impish parodies or something sketched in between.
Having climbed the ladder to his esteemed vantage point from humble beginnings in Jordan, Momani knows a thing or two about honing his humble craft, hunting down – as opposed to sitting in idle waiting for – a supposedly lucky break, and the importance of cherishing what you do.
Momani recently sat down with These Football Times to tell us all about a childhood irrepressibly entwined with both football and art, how he first began blazing his own trail in the ever-expanding illustration world, his advice for wannabe artists and so much more.
What are your earliest memories of football and do you feel these had an impact on your pursuit of a career in illustration?
“I discovered the world of football in 1986. My father brought his Newsweek magazine and on the cover there was Maradona, with someone is pulling his shirt. It astonished me, as I felt his strength and insistence. I asked my father, ‘Who was that?’ And he replied, ‘This is Maradona, the world’s best footballer. Maradona!’ My mother later bought me a t-shirt and socks that had Maradona printed on them, and I noticed kids were collecting Panini stickers and everyone was looking for the one of Maradona.
“Later on, I discovered other footballers such as Zico, Platini and Gullit. The media used to make comparisons between them and Maradona and for me it was like they were asking ‘who is the most powerful superhero; Superman or others like Batman and Flash?’ Of course, Maradona was Superman to me because he had won the World Cup – and Superman III was my favourite film back then.
“I consider myself a journalist or a storyteller who tells the news or the stories in the form of cartoons. And I also try to emphasis on the elements that made me fall in love with the game, like the Maradona’s strength, technique and heavy presence, Gullit’s cool style, and the comparisons between different footballers.
“MAD magazine also played a major role in influencing me too as I always wanted to mock footballers the same way they do with actors, musicians and politicians.”
Do you remember the very first time you were paid to draw? Would your school teachers or classmates be surprised to know you’re a professional artist? What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t an artist by trade?
“My first time was in 1995 I think, I was 14 back then, my father established a weekly political magazine and commissioned me to draw something about Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. I’m not sure how much he paid me but I was so happy to see my cartoon printed in a magazine.
“I was popular in school in Jordan because of my drawing skills. My classmates always asked me to draw famous cartoon characters and to caricature our teachers. None of the teachers took these cartoons with a good spirit and I was punished many times for them. Many teachers urged me to stop drawing because it is prohibited by their religion and they told me it could lead to being punished in the afterlife. But that didn’t stop me because my father told me it is total nonsense.
“In a modest country like Jordan, it is hard for kids to dream about working in the entertainment business or as an artist simply because it doesn’t pay your bills and the industry itself is virtually non-existent.
“I pursued Computer Science because I wanted to work in video game development and design while teaching myself how better to draw. But drawing was the thing that I had to focus on more, especially after learning how to utilise computer software like Photoshop and Flash. Years later, I was fortunate to work in animation studios in Jordan after graduation, as the industry started picking up at that time, and TV stations in the Middle East started demanding Arabic animated cartoons.”
What, in your opinion, are the best and worst parts of being a professional artist? Any details about your job that might surprise people?
“My best part is when I’m able to express my thoughts or feelings in a cartoon and I notice its impact on people. Likewise, my football cartoons have given me the opportunity to work with important clients. I am followed by many famous people in the football industry like Iker Casillas, Lukas Podolski and Radamel Falcao. That’s amazing to me.
“I remember that I went to an animation convention in Dubai years ago and there was a small cafe close to my hotel. I used to had my breakfast there every morning. The owner was a Gunner and we argued a lot about Arsenal and Wenger, until one day he asked me about what I do for a living. I told him I am a cartoonist and animator and he replied, ‘Since you are a cartoonist who loves football, why don’t start drawing like Omar Momani?’ I laughed so hard.
“What scares me about the art industry, in general, is that you have to be so good and so famous to be commissioned with good projects. It is not like most professions, which have clearer directions where you just have to collect some certain certificates to get a promotion or a good job. It’s so much more uncertain.”
How important do you think it is for an illustrator or cartoonist to have a style that is habitually theirs, that allows people to spot a piece long before they’ve had a chance to read the signature?
“I don’t advise illustrators and cartoonists to think about creating a style. Just draw the way you like; learn and observe from your favourite artists and in time, after practice, you will have your unique style. It will come by itself.
“I enjoy watching and reading classic American comics and cartoons like the Looney Tunes, Disney, Hanna Barbera and MAD magazine, and I am big fan of the Franco-Belgian comics like Asterix and Lucky Luke. I think you can notice where my style comes from.”
Such is the job of a good cartoonist, many of your illustrations go beyond a player’s likeness; they speak of their idiosyncrasies and their personalities. What do you look for in a player that makes you believe they’d be ideal to base an illustration on and do you have one favourite player to draw?
“I worked as a character designer for many animation projects before I started my career in football cartoons and one of the essential elements of designing a character is to create a personality of them. That’s why I place so much emphasis on that. You can’t neglect Mourinho’s arrogance, Ronaldo’s self-loving, Balotelli’s naivete, Pirlo’s confidence and so on. They are personalities and they give a taste and a defining characteristic to the cartoon.
“There is no one favourite player to draw, but I feel more happy to draw players with distinctive features such as Ibrahimović, because of his nose, Fellaini, because of his bushy hair, Messi, because of his beard.”
Do you have a favourite piece that you particularly enjoyed creating or simply felt you did an especially good job with? A piece you found particularly hard to draw for one reason or another?
“I try to give my best in every new cartoon. But, to be frank, I enjoy drawing AC Milan, or just Italian football, because it is where I started watching football when I was young. I also really enjoy merging football with classic films like Star Wars, The Terminator, The Godfather.”
What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date? Is there anything you’ve not yet done, professionally, that you would love to do?
“I’m still not satisfied about my career in general, though I enjoy seeing my cartoons. I think the best moment is joining Goal, as I was planning to start with national newspapers in Jordan in the beginning and to later work with big websites in the Middle East so that I would already have a good career to present to famous football mediums like Goal. But, thanks to the internet, I contacted with them directly and they accepted the idea. We started the journey together and have been collaborating since 2010.
“I have many dreams that I am aiming for, hopefully in the near future, like having a book of my cartoons, a graphic novel and short animated films. I dream about winning an Oscar, though not necessarily for anything related to football.”
What advice would you give to somebody looking to emulate yourself and carve out a career in the arts?
“Be patient, success won’t come in a blink of an eye. Practice every day and read more about art. Learn about marketing and social media because they are your tools to reach the world. And, if you are not finding a work in the art medium, it is ok to work on something else until you have the chance.”
By Will Sharp @shillwarp
Thanks to Omar Momani for speaking to These Football Times as part of The Gallery. If you’re an artist for whom football remains the ultimate muse, and you’d like to feature in The Gallery, please email us with examples of your work.