Remember the Tunisian goalkeeper who faked injury so that his team mates can break their fast in two consecutive World Cup qualifier games for the National Team? The story went viral in the social media and the very issue of Muslim players performing their religious obligation of fasting while playing matches got a lot of attention in the footballing world.
Football is by far the most popular sports in the world and as Islam is the second largest religion in terms of adherents, Muslim footballers are a very common sight in the elite competitions of football. A lot of traditional footballing nations from Western Europe have a significant number of Muslim footballers. For example, the French team that won the World Cup in 2018 had seven Muslim footballers with backgrounds from various countries of North and West Africa.
Due to the tight schedules of the top European leagues, a lot of matches are normally being played during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. A lot of footballers don't shy away from fasting although it is quite difficult to play a game which requires humongous stamina and strength without having food and beverages for a very long period of time.
The most recent case is Manchester United's French midfielder Paul Pogba was fasting throughout the match in his team's 6-2 thumping of Roma in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League semi final. Pogba was excellent throughout the match and also scored a great headed goal. Karim Benzema, the star striker of Real Madrid, is also known to be a devout Muslim who manages to keep his performance at the top level despite fasting.
Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, Achraf Hakimi, N'Golo Kanté have been among the top footballers who have fasted during a match. There are exceptions to this case as well for example, MesutÖzil the German footballer of Turkish descent is known to be a reverent Muslim. But he didn’t fast during Germany's successful World Cup campaign in 2014 citing health concerns. A lot of other Muslim footballers like Özil don’t fast during the match days and compensate for it later on.
Managers and game officials have been quite supportive of this phenomenon in the recent past. On April 26, 2021, the game between Leicester City and Crystal Palace in the English Premier League was halted during the half hour mark so that Wesley Fofana and Cheikhou Kouyate could break their fast.
The interval lasted for less than a minute with Crystal Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita delaying his goal kick in that time. Both the players took energy gels at the sideline and thereby completed their iftar for the day. This move was highly praised in the social media and it was later known that Dr. Zafar Iqbal, the club doctor of Crystal Palace, played an important role in convincing the managers and the referee to come up with this momentary break.
Fellow footballers and managers are usually quite supportive of the Muslim footballers fasting during Ramadan. Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp, while being asked if the fasting of key players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané would affect the performance on the pitch, famously said, “In this life, there are many things more important than football."
Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand hailed Pogba's dedication in the match against Roma while fasting. In general, Muslim footballers don't have to go through any obstacles from their team mates, managers and even former players, being extremely encouraging about this particular issue. We have also seen referees recently allowing these types of breaks in the midst of games further facilitating the cause.
But the question remains, whether it is absolutely possible to maintain the top level of play while fasting. As someone has to abstain from any sort of food or drink from sunrise to sunset, it is extremely difficult for professional athletes to stay on their feet, let alone play efficiently during matches.
But the whole concept of fasting has a significant mental and spiritual aspect. Footballers who fast are generally quite motivated to play the games and seldom deliver below their usual level.
The nutritionists of many clubs and national teams are also engaged in coming up with comprehensive diet plans for the players so that they don't have to endure severe physical tolls while fasting. Especially in the national teams like Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, this measure is taken as most of the players in those teams are practicing Muslims.
Football is becoming more and more inclusive and diverse every day with players coming from many different socio-economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Ramadan is the most important time in the year for Muslims. With many players abiding by their religious norms while delivering top notch performances, we can safely say that this has been instrumental in promoting peace and diversity.
Rassiq Aziz Kabir is a student of Economics at the University of Dhaka.