In today’s footballing world, clubs control every last detail of a player’s lifestyle, from their workout plans in the gym, to regimented diets, and even sleeping habits. For the next month, however, the Islamic month of Ramadan will make things a little bit complicated for the Premier League’s ever increasing Muslim contingent.
Ramadan has finally began and will last for up to 30 days, right through pre-season and into the new Barclays Premier League season. For Muslims, this is a time of devotion to their God, where they abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or engaging in sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. Muslims undergo this test of willpower and faith to move closer to their God, and to learn discipline and humility. On those last two counts at least, many managers may like what they hear. Yet this is no regular pre-season boot camp; for Muslims, footballers or otherwise, fasting in the western world is a great balancing act. Managers and fans alike may wonder what purpose all this serves, but for Muslims, fasting in the month of Ramadan is a core principle and foundation to their belief, one of Islam’s “5 pillars”. Whilst tradition in Islamic nations dictates a lifestyle which revolves around the months practices, no such changes can be made in European cities and in professional football leagues.
As the Premier League becomes an increasingly diverse and international league, this year Ramadan plays a larger role than ever in the meticulous management of Premier League stars. The Newcastle strike force of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse comprises of two practising Muslims, with Hatem Ben Arfa and Cheick Tiote taking the tally up to four. The reigning Premier League champions Manchester City are home to a group of Muslims themselves; the Toure brothers, Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko. Bacary Sagna and Maroune Chamakh at Arsenal, Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and QPR’s Adel Taarabt are some others, and there are more still as well as on the continent, where the likes of Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema ply their trade.
The most obvious concern is that of sustenance. Long days in the UK summer mean that players will be abstaining from food and drink for up to 18 hours a day; a tough ask on the laziest of days, never mind when seeking full fitness ahead of the daily grind of a footballing season. Some players compromise and do not fast throughout the month, or not on match days, making up for their “missed fasts” at other times in the year; an option available in Islam to those facing complications. However, many players push themselves to the limits, as evidenced a few years ago when Sulley Muntari was substituted after just 30 minutes by Jose Mourinho when playing for Inter Milan. Mourinho said the holy month’s timing was not exactly compatible with Muntari playing, a comment which raised some eyebrows. Mourinho would later clarify, stating that whilst he respected Muntari’s beliefs and did not suggest he should stop observing Ramadan, it was something for him and his staff to consider. Right he is, and in recent years, Real Madrid have adopted a specialist training schedule for their contingent of Muslim players.
More recently in last season’s Premier League, Demba Ba observed Ramadan in the opening weeks of the season and struggled to find his goalscoring touch. But once the month had passed, Ba burst into life, going on to score 16 times, giving birth to the chant “Demba scored 16 since Ramadan, he just can’t get enough…” As a Muslim, it warms the heart to see football fans react in such a positive and witty way to players choosing to observe their faith, even when it most certainly can compromise their performance, which Ba himself admitted. At a time when the sport faces serious questions over its approach to racism, the festival of Ramadan offers football an opportunity to show just how inclusive and welcoming it is to people of all faiths and creeds. Ba’s team-mates at Newcastle spoke last season about how much they had learnt about Islam from Ba and how it affects his daily behaviour, manners and even potentially, his performance. Similarly, Ali Al-Habsi at Wigan Athletic spoke of how the club catered towards his faith by creating a prayer facility for him, not just at home games but even when Wigan traveled away.
Ramadan will once again present players and staff alike with great challenges over the month. From the self-discipline observed by those observing fasts, to the intricate and sensitive management of these highly paid stars, Ramadan is not easy to negotiate. Yet, football demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be treated as an unwelcome and foreign concept, rather an obstacle just like any other which clubs face through a long and arduous season. The compulsion of players to abide by their faith is going nowhere and neither is the demanding nature of life as a footballer. Until now, clubs, players and fans have managed to find a perfect balance in managing the trade-off and long may it continue. It has a lot to say for Islam’s compatibility with the western world, by embedding it within one of the nation’s greatest loves, but more so for the open and welcoming society we live in.
Premier League Muslims
Arsenal – Bacary Sagna, Abou Diaby, Marouane Chamakh
Aston Villa – Karim El Ahmadi
Everton – Marouane Fellaini, Shkodran Mustafi
Fulham – Phillipe Senderos, Moussa Dembele, Pajtim Kasami
Man City – Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko
Newcastle United – Cheik Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse
QPR – Adel Taarabt
Stoke City – Salif Diao
Sunderland – Ahmed Elmohamady
Tottenham – Younes Kaboul
WBA – Yassine El Ghanassy
West Ham – Mohamed Diame
Wigan Athletic – Ali Al-Habsi
Notable Others – Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil, Nuri Sahin, Franck Ribery, Eric Abidal, Miralem Pjanic, Freddie Kanoute, Nicolas Anelka, Seydou Keita, Ibrahim Affelay, Andrea Ayew, Sulley Muntari, Adil Rami