The 2014 World Cup has presented a monumental challenge for all players competing in the heat and humidity of the Brazilian summer. With many matches scheduled in the rainforest, conditions have at times been brutal, especially for those athletes who have grown accustomed to plying their trade in cooler climates during the winter months.
The task is about to get much more difficult for many of the World Cup's Muslim athletes, as the holy month of Ramadan begins at sundown on Saturday. According to Islamic tradition, all Muslims are required to abstain from all food, drink, smoking, sex and any vulgar language or behavior during daylight. It is a physical, mental and spiritual demand for all who observe, even those who have low physical demands at the time. For athletes, especially those playing at the highest level, the task is hugely amplified.
All World Cup games during Ramadan kick-off at either 1 p.m. or 5 p.m., with the exception of the final, scheduled for 4 p.m. Depending on location and date, sunset in the remaining host city venues is set to be anywhere between 5:13 p.m. (in Recife, via TimeAndDate.com) and 5:41 p.m. (in Porto Allegre), meaning that those in strict observance in the later games will be permitted to rehydrate themselves not long after kick-off. Those who intend to strictly observe and are scheduled for the 1 p.m. kick-off may be faced with a challenge beyond human ability.
Monday will bring the significance of Ramadan to the fore as Germany and Algeria compete in the round of 16. According to the CIA World Factbook, 99 percent of Algerians are Sunni Muslims, a statistic that is reflected in the composition of their World Cup squad. And although Germany is not a predominantly Islamic country, the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Shkodran Mustafi are Muslim.
According to AFP (h/t France24), the majority of Algeria's players have decided to fast in spite of the potential health risks posed, particularly dehydration and injuries associated therewith. Captain Madjid Bougherra told the French source he would at least attempt to fast: "Personally, I’m going to see what my physical state is, but I think I can do it."
Although many are strict and orthodox in their beliefs on fasting during Ramadan, others are more pragmatic. Speaking at a press conference in Recife earlier this week (via T-Online in German), Ozil admitted he would not fast due to his involvement in the tournament.
Some Muslims hold that certain tenets exist that exempt footballers from fasting. As with exceptions for the sick or pregnant, some believe that footballers at the World Cup qualify as those who are traveling and therefore can break the fast. Others feel that a postponement of fasting for a more convenient date or even a doctor's note is acceptable.
Officially, the German F.A. (DFB) has no standard policy on the observance of Ramadan. Spokesman Jens Grittner was cited by Deutsche Welle (in German) as claiming the matter was private, for the players to decide how to handle on their own. Bougherra's stance more or less mirrored that of the side his team will face.
FIFA also weighed in on the matter earlier this week, with medical officer Jiri Dvorak assuring reporters (h/t Reuters): "[FIFA] have made extensive studies of players during Ramadan, and the conclusion was that if Ramadan is followed appropriately, there will be no reduction in the physical performances of players." The statistical and medical basis of these claims remains unclear.
What is clear is that some German and all Algerian athletes competing on Monday will have a difficult choice to make and a substantial hurdle to overcome, spiritually, mentally and physically. Players, fans and officials alike can only hope for the best.