How European football made peace with fasting during Ramadan – 04/03/2024 – Sport

How European football made peace with fasting during Ramadan – 04/03/2024 – Sport


Youseff Chippo had a secret.

A few months after starting his career as a football player in Europe, Chippo, a Moroccan midfielder, was striving to prove himself and didn’t want to do anything that would harm his chances of success. This included revealing that he was fasting during Ramadan, a normal practice for the world’s billions of Muslims, but not in the FC Porto dressing room in Portugal in the winter of 1997.

The team’s double training sessions — morning and afternoon — were arduous. Participating in them without eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset made things more difficult. Eventually, after enduring days of dizziness and headaches in silence, Chippo revealed the truth, and the club quickly devised a plan to preserve his energy and health.

For decades, however, other Muslim players have found teams that are less welcoming, at least officially. So, in a sport where continuous play and a lack of substitutions provide little opportunity for a break from the bench during the match, these players have always depended on creativity and improvised solutions to break the fast: teammates who faked or exaggerated injuries soon after sunset to give his fellow Muslims a moment to run to the sidelines; a few dates or a sugary drink passed by a staff member at the appointed time; physical trainers rushing to tend to an injured knee with a kit curiously well stocked with bananas.

But more recently, football, which once viewed fasting by Muslim players as something to be discouraged or criticized, is actively changing its practices. In a shift that reflects both the growing prevalence and high value of Muslim football stars, some of the world’s richest leagues and teams — with one notable exception — have come to fully embrace Ramadan fasts.

In Europe, this means that many Muslim players now benefit from personalized nutritional plans before and during the month of fasting; fasting-friendly training schedules; and even league-approved breaks during games that allow them to break their fast on the field.

Some of the changes reflect a new acceptance of diversity in rich competitions such as England’s Premier League, whose reach and fan base have long expanded beyond domestic borders. There are also more practical reasons for the changes. Muslim players now represent an investment worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the world’s elite teams, and these players are increasingly vocal about what they need.

Two seasons ago, for example, Liverpool striker Sadio Mané asked the team captain to approach coach Jürgen Klopp about moving daily training during Ramadan to the morning so that he and other Muslims in the team, such as star Mohammed Salah, could partake closer to the pre-dawn meal. Klopp complied with the request.

“They take it very seriously because they understand how important it is for me and important for them too because they need to keep me in shape,” said Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian midfielder for another big Premier League club, Arsenal.

Elneny, 31, is one of three Arsenal players who are fasting during Ramadan this season. He said the team begins preparing players about two weeks before the first fast day, going through “literally everything” players might need to maintain peak performance. The process is repeated the day before the start of Ramadan. Other Premier League clubs, and dozens of other teams across Europe, are now doing the same.

The leagues in England and the Netherlands have also introduced rules that explicitly allow a break called the “Ramadan break” during matches, and referees in Germany have the authority to stop play for the same reason.

But not all countries agree.

France’s football federation faced criticism recently after issuing guidelines directing teams and officials not to stop play so players could break their fast, and for banning players who train with federation teams from fasting.

French authorities defended the guidelines saying they were necessary under the federation’s rules on secularism. But at least one prominent player left a national team camp in protest.

Others continue to promote inclusion and education. In England, the Premier League has allowed clubs with Muslim players to arrange with referees for brief sunset breaks since 2021. And the players’ association, the Professional Footballers Association, has produced a 30-page document that is a mix of guideline Ramadan and tips on the best fasting practices.

“Rather than asking Muslims to adapt to the environment, it is better to understand otherwise,” said Maheta Molango, CEO of the association.

This type of knowledge was not always widely available. At Porto in 1997, Chippo’s coach Fernando Santos listened patiently as the player explained why he was fasting and then helped reduce his workload. But when Chippo moved to England two years later, he had to take matters into his own hands.

There, whenever the game schedule coincided with iftar — the evening fast-breaking meal — Chippo would assign a team member to hover along the edge of the field with dates and a bottle of water and run toward him at the right moment. , usually at the beginning of the second half.

The first known example of an organized break in play in the Premier League occurred three years ago during a match between Crystal Palace and Leicester. Former Crystal Palace doctor Zafar Iqbal said that before the game, both teams’ medical teams approached the referee about the need for a break. At the appointed time, the Palace goalkeeper prolonged a free kick to allow this to happen.

“When the ball went out of bounds, the game was stopped and both players ran to the sidelines to get a drink and some dates,” Iqbal said. “No one else inside the stadium noticed as it happened quickly.”

This agile process went largely unnoticed at the time, revealed only when one of the Muslim players involved thanked the goalkeeper, the league and the teams the next day.

Harry Redknapp, a popular former England manager, said his introduction to Ramadan came in 2000 when he was managing West Ham. He recalled his shock when the team’s main striker, Frédéric Kanouté, a Frenchman of Malian descent, told him that he would not eat or drink during the day for the rest of the month.

“I had no idea when this started,” Redknapp said. “I didn’t really know what that entailed.”

Redknapp later moved to Portsmouth, where the team included more Muslim players, including Sulley Muntari, a Ghanaian known for his tireless running. There, the club provided snacks and drinks whenever Ramadan matches extended into the evening.

But even then, Redknapp said, the teams didn’t have nutrition experts to guide them. “I think they came out during a game once,” he said of a game, “and we gave them a couple of Mars bars.”

Muntari’s starvation would later make headlines when he moved to Italy, where his coach at Inter Milan, José Mourinho, pulled him from a game due to lack of energy. Muntari “had problems related to Ramadan”, Mourinho told reporters, suggesting that the holy month “did not come at the ideal time for a player to play in a football match”. The coach said his statements were taken out of context.

At Arsenal, Elneny said he attends all training sessions during Ramadan, altering what he eats in his pre-dawn and evening meals based on the expected intensity of the training sessions.

On game days, he said that if he is selected to start, he will take advantage of a layoff that he says allows him to make up for the day’s fast at a later date. In a league as fiercely competitive as the Premier League, he said he did not want to do anything that might cause his teammates to “doubt” his commitment.

Despite the now common presence of Muslims in Premier League dressing rooms, the knowledge that a teammate cannot even take a sip of water during training or fast-paced games can be disconcerting for non-Muslim teammates. “Their expressions change,” Elneny said.

Some are curious. Ahmed Elmohamady, an Egyptian defender who played in England for more than a decade, said one of his former teammates, Irishman Paul McShane, even joined him in fasting for one day one year.

“It was great to see,” Elmohamady said, although he admitted McShane didn’t last. “He did it once, but he said it would be very difficult to do it for 30 days.”


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