Fasting is the act of refraining from eating food for a long period of time. Some people fast as part of a diet, which is called intermittent fasting. However, during Ramadan, many Muslims undertake fasting as part of their faith. This brings up the question, “How do Muslim footballers fast?”. We will be delving deeper into this sensitive subject in the below blog.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it is observed by Muslims worldwide. The meaning of the event is a commemoration of Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It lasts either 29 or 30 days, from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next. Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship. Muslims also refrain from tobacco, sexual relations and all sinful behaviour, and devote themselves to prayer.
Fasting from sunrise to sunset is a key part of Ramadan. Muslims believe that the act of fasting teaches them to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, thus encouraging actions of generosity. It is obligatory for all adult Muslims who are not acutely or chronically ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, or diabetic. For this reason, Muslim footballers fast because they are obligated and because they want to as part of their religion. However, some football clubs may discourage fasting on the basis that it affects performance.
Do all Muslim Footballers Fast?
There are many Muslim footballers at the top of the game. These include Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Granit Xhaka, among many more. Fasting during Ramadan can be difficult for footballers due to the dehydration and lack of energy. This has the potential to make training more difficult as well as matches.
Overall, it can be said that some Muslim footballers fast, whereas some choose not to, on the basis that they are travelling, or have an ‘adequate need’ to consume food and drink during the day. It is not a question of their religious beliefs or devotion, but rather a personal choice. Some players choose to delay their fasting, or limit their fasting to ensure they can still play at the top level, whereas some players believe that fasting does not affect their performance, gives them mental clarity and, in the short-term, allow them to think differently and does not negatively affect their performance.
The timing of Ramadan is different every year, but is usually around the months of April through to June. This is difficult as these Spring and Summer days are so long, so Muslims are fasting for over 12 hours, leaving not much time for eating and drinking. In football’s European leagues, this is towards the end of the season.
In some cases, Muslim footballers can be lucky in that the season ends during Ramadan. Meaning the majority of their fasting can be done in the off-season. However, the end of the season is also when some clubs play their most important fixtures, like cup finals, so the decision of whether to fast can be more difficult. In 2018, Ramadan coincided with the World Cup in Russia, leaving many players conflicted.
How did Muslim Footballers Fast during the 2018 World Cup?
The 2018 World Cup was particularly difficult for Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran, as most of their players chose to fast. The coaches and nutritionists had to be creative with their preparation, which included reduced training sessions and evening training sessions. Elite football clubs are used to the situation because as we know, a large amount of the world’s best players are Muslim. They limit the sessions for these players and position training in the mornings and evenings. This is done so that players are refuelled for the first session, and after the final session.
Abdel-Zaher El-Saqqa is a former Egypt defender who stated that he actually played better during Ramadan. The spiritual aspect of fasting can improve the focus of players. Oftenly, the negatives of a lack of food and drink is mainly psychological in the short term. The Tunisian football team had a more cunning tactic. Their group games kicked off in the evening, meaning that the sunset occurred during the game.
In around the 55th minute in 2 of their 3 games, the Tunisian goalkeeper went to ground down with an injury. The game would be stopped while the medical staff tended to the goalkeeper, which gave all players an opportunity to drink water, eat snacks high in sugar such as dates, and consume energy gels before the game restarted. This allowed to players to refuel without breaking their fast, and in one case, had a fantastic effect. Tunisia were losing to Portugal 2-1, but after the stoppage for refuelling, they unexpectedly drew level and finished the game 2-2.
Some players did decide to delay their fasting until after the World Cup. Other decided not to fast at all due to the travel and importance of their jobs. This is perfectly acceptable for Muslim footballers, and it is entirely a personal choice which is to be respected. A small part of the 2014 World Cup overlapped with Ramadan. Hence, players such as Ozil, Xhaka, and Shaqiri decided to delay their fast. This was due to fitness concerns and dehydration issues in the extremely hot temperatures in Brazil. In the same tournament, Algeria players decided to maintain their fasting. Even in their last-16 match against Germany, one of the nation’s biggest games in their history. At half-time, despite still being before sunset, some players broke their fast to have more energy for the second half.
Examples of Muslim Footballers Fasting in Games
Mohamed Salah & Sadio Mane
In both 2018 and 2019, Jurgen Klopp was faced with his two best players observing Ramadan. This while his team prepared for the biggest game in club football, the Champions League final. When asked about this, Klopp strictly stated that an individual’s decision to fast is private, personal, and would not be influenced or discussed by himself. These 2 players were of course Mo Salah and Sadio Mane. It was later revealed that Salah had maintained fasting throughout the preparations of both games. However, in the 3 days prior to the games, he replenished throughout the day to be as prepared as possible.
In 2019, after scoring an early penalty on Liverpool’s way to their 6th European Cup, Salah took a sip of water which was before sunset in Madrid, showing that he may not have been strictly following fasting. It is not clear whether Sadio Mane took the same approach in 2019, however it is believed that the year before in Kiev, Mane did fast and therefore played the final without eating or drinking during the day. Mane scored Liverpool’s only goal in that game in that final and was one of their best players.
Hakim Ziyech & Noussair Mazraoui
Another instance of players fasting during the 2019 Champions League was in the semi-final between Ajax and Tottenham. Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui were the Ajax players observing the tradition, and they were seen consuming water and energy drinks mid-way through the game after sunset. This was a big decision for the players to make in such a huge game. Unfortunately, they ultimately lost after an unbelievable comeback from Tottenham. Before the game,
Dutch fitness guru Raymond Verheijen said that fasting would be irresponsible of the Ajax players, and that professional footballers shouldn’t be fasting while playing their sport. This was met with anger from Muslim footballers and many criticised the comments. Despite succumbing to a late defeat, fasting didn’t seem to affect the players performances, and Ziyech got a goal for Ajax soon after he refuelled in the first half.
Overall, Muslim footballers fasting often doesn’t look like it has too much of an impact on their performance. This may be surprising as modern football, especially at elite level, has nutritionists who try to find any way to give their players a slight advantage on the pitch, from the tiny details of what and when to eat and drink. It seems crazy that despite this level of importance on diet and training, Muslim players can fast and still put in top performances.
Of course, Ramadan is only around a month long, and if the pattern of fasting continued for longer periods of time, we would probably see the effects on the players more clearly. As well as this, the impact on footballers’ mentality must be considered. Elite football clubs also have psychologists, and Ramadan is a time of spirituality, self-enlightenment, and self-improvement
It’s impossible to say whether nutritional preparation or mental preparation is more important for a footballer. Perhaps the issues with energy levels or hydration could be offset with the feelings that players have while fasting. That is, players might feel more determined, humble, and closer to their God.