It feels like the presence of Muslim footballers playing in Europe has grown exponentially over the last decade. This year marks the tenth anniversary since Zinedine Zidane lit up the World Cup final in Paris, captaining France to football’s most coveted prize for Aime Jacquet’s Les Bleus. Back in those days, many of us were left disappointed as our online searching in hope of confirming Zidane’s commitment to Islam yielded very mixed results. It feels like we’ve come a long way since, with many openly Muslim players gracing the premier divisions since then, including Nicolas Anelka, the Toure Brothers, Mesut Ozil, Paul Pogba, and of course, the prostrating duo of Muhammad Salah and Sadio Mane.
It is the Egyptian man of the aforementioned duo who has particularly brought a positive spotlight onto Muslims over the course of this season. His exploits, both on and off the pitch, have endeared him to the Liverpool faithful, to the extent that some of the chants they have been singing have been comically Islamophillic. One of these chants goes, “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too…sitting in the Mosque is where I wanna be…”, while another proclaims, “Mohammad Salah, a gift from Allah, he came from Roma, to Liverpool…”. Light hearted as they may be, they are a much welcome break from the usual Islamophobia that Europe is being exposed to by way of the media. It is perhaps because of their light heartedness that they are so effective. Liverpool’s beloved Manager, Jürgen Klopp, believes the positive image of Salah, and the love he is getting in return, “it’s fantastic, it’s exactly what we need in these times”. Salah’s record breaking tally of 32 goals in the premier league has helped Liverpool secure a Champions League spot, but more crucially, his 10 goals in the Champions League helped propel them to the final of the competition. Falling on the 26th of May this year, it will be played during Ramadan. Many are again now discussing the challenges Muslim players face during the holy month.
While Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, as well as Liverpool’s Salah, Mane, and Emre Can, will be preparing for the huge final during Ramadan, to the many Muslim players who’ll be representing their countries at this years World Cup, Ramadan will be just finishing at the championship begins. Players in the 2014 World Cup were not quite so lucky, with Ramadan beginning 2 weeks into the 4 week event. Muslim players at that event included Bosnian Edin Dzeko, as well as Yaya Toure, and Benzema. When asked by a reported if he planned on fasting, Toure retorted, “Fasting? Have you seen the weather? I would die,” Yaya’s brother Kolo, when playing for Liverpool back in 2013, gave a slightly different narrative about competing during Ramadan, talking of how the fast made him spiritually and mentally stronger. Granted, Yaya was talking about playing during the World Cup, while Kolo was speaking in the context of pre-season training.
In terms of the effect of fasting on the standard of a player, one famous example warns against playing while fasting. Jose Mourinho, during his tenure at the helm of Inter Milan, substituted Ghanian Muslim Sulley Muntari just 30 minutes into a game, later remarking that Ramadan had “not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match”. Players who do fast during game days try to combat the fatigue by piling up on slow release carbs during suhoor; a feat that was carried out by revert and former Premier League footballer Nathan Ellington, as well as being the advice of former Liverpool team doctor Zaf Iqbal. Ellington also talks of hiding the fact he was fasting from his manager at times, knowing that knowledge of that often lead to him being deselected from the team.
While it might seem commonsensical that a restricted diet would significantly deplete cardio performance, a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Sports Sciences seems to challenge this position. The researchers on that study, which included scientists from FIFA’s Medical Assessment and Research Center in Zurich, reported that “No variables were negatively affected by fasting…Ramadan had little effect on objective tests of physical performance in this sample of youth players observing Ramadan.” In fact, the youth players who were tested in that study actually improved in their performances in Ramadan, however this was deemed to be as a result of the “training effect” i.e. they became better at the tasks with each try.
Religious authorities have issued fatwas allowing professional players to not fast on game days. Germany’s Central Council of Muslims responded to the German Football Federation’s (DFB) request to look into the matter by finding that players did not have to fast on game days. Then Council president Aiman Mazyek said in a statement, “The professional player can make up the fasting days during periods when there is no match and in that way show his respect for God and the holy month of Ramadan”. The DFB delved into the matter after 3 Muslim players playing for PSV Eindhoven fasted on game days in secret, failing to inform their managers. Similarly, Cairo’s famed Al Azhar University issued a fatwa allowing professionals exemption from fasting on game days. Despite this allowance, many Muslims can testify to the feeling of wanting to fulfill the fasts within the month, ignoring the allowances that are made for those who are travelling, or who are sick; pushing on through and completing the fast despite any hardships that they face. Salah talked before of struggling with Ramadan during pre-season at his time at Chelsea back in 2014, so it is likely that he won’t fast on game day come the 26th; either way, let us hope that he burns brightly in Kiev!