How Do Muslim Players Cope with Fasting Ahead of the World Cup?
Preparing for a World Cup is not easy for any player. You need to be in perfect physical condition and the right frame of mind, usually at the end of a gruelling domestic season.
For footballers of Muslim faith, though, the upcoming tournament in Russia is even more complicated.
The holy month of Ramadan—a time when devotees do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset—has led to coaches and nutritionists seeking special plans to ensure players can cope with the complexities of playing in the game's most famous tournament at a time of such huge religious importance.
Some of the biggest names in the game, including Mohamed Salah, Mesut Ozil and Paul Pogba are among those with a decision to make, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran have the biggest task in making sure their players are looked after.
The period is set to end just as the World Cup gets under way, so how will teams and players strike the right balance between committing to faith and football?
Dealing with the Demands
During World Cup preparations, Tunisia are one of the teams most heavily impacted by Ramadan, as many of their players have chosen to fast.
However, they seemed to find a way to help maintain energy levels in their recent matches against Portugal and Turkey.
In both games, around the time of fasting being broken, goalkeeper Mouez Hassen went to ground with, let's say, minor injuries. Against Portugal, he was left holding his leg after a straight forward save; versus Turkey, he fell to the floor clutching his arm after an innocuous bump.
On both occasions, players who had been fasting ran to the side of the pitch to take on water and dates to help restore low blood-sugar levels. It seems a smart play and it caused quite a stir on social media as people caught on.
They have one more warm-up match to play before the tournament begins and Tunisian journalist Souhail Khmira explained to B/R:
"By the time we play at the World Cup, Ramadan would have ended, but it does take a huge toll on the players.
"It's physically exhausting. As someone who fasts, let me assure you, we barely get by with daily tasks, let alone an intensive practice schedule. Almost all players are Muslim and many are practicing Muslims—so they pray five times a day and such. In a way, when they chose to fast, it's probably because they want to fulfil their duties towards God and get 'blessed' or 'rewarded' with a good performance."
Fasting is an individual decision, and exceptions can be made when travelling away from home or if a person is unwell.
Salah took up the travel option ahead of Liverpool's Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine. And at the last World Cup, Germany international Ozil told reporters: "Ramadan starts on Saturday, but I will not take part because I am working."
Other high-profile Muslim players are likely to take that same stance this time, though many consider it a private choice.
A Positive State of Mind
"Of course, the Ramadan period can be a challenging time for the Muslim footballers, as the profession they are in is physically demanding," explains Islam Momani, the co-founder and director of the Association of Muslim Footballers, a network group for players to connect and share their experiences.
"However, the spiritual and mental aspect can, in many ways, inspire and motivate the footballers further, by allowing them to be more focused. It gives them mental strength which can play a significant role in allowing them to overcome any physical challenges which they will face."
A lack of energy and strength from not eating and drinking is often the first thought of those not fasting, but an opposing case is often argued by those who do.
In this blog from The Renegade Pharmacist, there is an explanation of how a long period without food "takes us away from our own minds into a more conscious state, where we observe our thoughts, emotions and sensations in a much deeper level."
The article goes on to state that eating only once or twice daily makes it possible to act with more clarity and less impulse.
That sentiment seems to crop up regularly among those who fast during Ramadan.
No Conflict Between Faith and Football
Abdel-Zaher El-Saqqa is a former Egypt international defender who was capped 112 times by his country and spent most of his professional career in Turkey.
"I always played well while fasting, I have no explanation, but I guess it's God's help and will," he told Bleacher Report. "My best games were all during Ramadan—once I even had to break my fast during a game when Adhan al-Maghreb time came.
"Egyptian players, including Salah, of course, have the experience of playing during fasting or after breaking their fast during Ramadan, because it's a thing they do over the years again and again."
The Islamic festival of Ramadan began on May 16, and fasting runs through daylight hours.
Nathan Ellington, a former Premier League forward with Wigan Athletic of Muslim faith, believes the difficulty of playing during Ramadan is sometimes overplayed.
"To be honest, it's not that difficult," he told Ben Welch of FourFourTwo. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there. People think Muslims fast to torture themselves—as a show of devotion to our faith—but this is not true. We do it to give up our bad habits and to become better Muslims."
Momani of the AFM also told B/R: "There is no conflict between being a professional footballer and being of Muslim faith. One just has to look at the success of Muslim footballers, past and present, who have prioritised their faith without the need to compromise."
A New Understanding
Modern-day players have their food, water and sleep carefully monitored by specialists.
Dr Zafar Iqbal is head of sports medicine at Crystal Palace and a consultant in sports and exercise medicine.
"Certainly the players I've worked with who have fasted have all said that they find fasting helps them mentally and that they feel even more disciplined and appreciative of what they have," he explained.
"Some players will fast during training and not during matches, and make them up later—especially as they will be travelling. Again it is a very individual decision to be made.
"I've found this with other Muslim athletes in other sports, such as cricket and rugby, where individuals fast during both training and games and feel it helps them mentally."
Governing bodies, including the Football Association, produce support information every year ahead of Ramadan to make coaches and managers aware that some players may choose to be fasting. There is now less confusion and more understanding around the holy month than in the past.
"Some managers I've worked with have been particularly understanding," explains Dr Iqbal. "During pre-season a few years ago, when the fasts were long, the manager allowed those players who were fasting to train just a single session and then a gym session as opposed to a double session outside.
"I've also been touched by some of the kind gestures from understanding team-mates. When I was at Liverpool, Luis Suarez would frequently come up to me and remind me that it's now sunset and time to eat and we would discuss Ramadan, as he had team-mates at Ajax who used to fast."
Focus Makes a Difference
The impact of Ramadan is something people in Egypt, Salah's home nation, are extremely familar with.
Mohamed Aboul-Ela, the national-team doctor, described how fasting works around demanding football schedules—such as the upcoming World Cup.
"It's a complicated situation," he told Egyptian TV channel DMC. "We always try to prepare the best circumstances for our fasting players. For example, our team will meet Uruguay in the World Cup after 30 days of fasting, the players' bodies will be used to very little amounts of food and drinks.
"The players need much time for their bodies to return to its normal state. But we never ask a player to break his fast, we just explain what they have to do nutrition-wise from a medical point of view."
Filgoal journalist Fady Ashraf has seen firsthand that fasting does not mean a player's performance levels drop.
He said: "Players are different, and in the past few years, the Egyptian national team played many games in Ramadan when some players broke their fast and some kept with the religious commitment.
"But it was never an indicator of how a player performs. But over the years, rarely did a player underperform or collapse out of exhaustion during Ramadan."
The World Cup will push players to their limits as they attempt to make a name for themselves on the game's biggest stage. For those fasting, the focus should be as sharp as ever.