Ramadan, Fasting Soccer Players and the Story that Blew Up

Algerian Coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Photo courtesy of Getty.

Is your news feeds are clogged with articles about how Muslim footballers (soccer players) who have moved onto the knockout rounds in the World Cup will or will not be fasting in Ramadan? If not, then you aren’t Muslim or you are not into the World Cup — and I feel sorry for you. No, I’m kidding. Seriously though – this is like the latest and greatest new story for journalists to be covering at the World Cup. And the headlines, tweets, status updates, debates and comments are killing me.

These players will be fasting in Ramadan! (Then the article goes on to discuss who are Muslim soccer players in the knockout rounds, not who are confirmed to be fasting). Most of the Algerian team will fast! The Algerian coach angry at Ramadan questions. Fasting is detrimental to athletes. Fasting is safe for athletes. And most articles feature a picture of German midfielder Mesut Ozil. Why him every time?

True, fasting while participate in athletic competitions (or even while adhere to an exercise schedule) is no joke. I also wrote about Ramadan and the fasting athlete on Day One of the World Cup:

“I don’t know how these athletes do it. My sorry self couldn’t even maintain yoga classes last Ramadan. More than anything, it’s amazing what the body can accomplish when the mind is determined to make it so. It really is up to us – what we want to give and receive in Ramadan. May Allah (swt) make it easy for these athletes.”

And I thought I’d write about how the media frenzy over this story has gotten out of control, but Shireen Ahmed, who is a contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a lover of soccer and a soccer player for three decades (she’ll probably not like me calling her a soccer player. FOOTBALL player!), and who tweets @footybedsheets — well she said pretty much all I wanted to say. So here is her piece in full. I’ll leave it right here for you to enjoy as the last word on this story:

Sorry Folks, the “Plight of Fasting Footballers” is Not a “Breaking Story”

By Shireen Ahmed, dubbed official World Cup Correspondent for Muslimah Next Door

The 2014 World Cup is in high gear. We have been enamoured with new stars, heartbroken by unfair departures and riveted by the beautiful goals and majestic saves.

We are also entering the holy month of Ramadan and now that Bite-gate has fizzled out and Suarez was ejected from the tournament, sport journalists are hankering for a new hot story.
And their sights have been set on Muslim Footballers. What could be more enticing than a story about Islam’s Holy Month of Ramadan coinciding with the World Cup and what that will mean for Muslim footballers?

Will they suffer from exhaustion? Will they be able to play in intense heat? WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE MUSLIM PLAYERS?

These questions have conquered the World Cup news for the last few days.

Everywhere we go, there are articles and pieces (really just recycled information from different sites) with information we already know.

Lazily, these offerings simply state the players who self-identify as Muslim and assume they will be fasting.The vocabulary around these stories is often: “Reconciling faith and Football” and “Players Challenged during Holy Month”; which creates a narrative questioning whether religion will hamper the performance of these world class players.

Mesut Ozil of Germany has become the poster-boy of a fasting footballer. Despite the fact he has publicly announced he is *not* fasting.

I had the chance to speak with the good people of Howler Magazine’sDUMMY Podcast on the issue of Muslim players at the World Cup (starts at 21:30) . A point I kept driving home was that Muslim players are not new to this experience and will make up their own minds.

Allow me to clarify a few things:

1) Fasting is not easy. The players know this.

Will they be exhausted? Yes. Thirsty? Yes. And they will have teams of coaches and in some cases physicians to assist them with physical and emotional support. It has been reported that results from research around fasting while playing is varied. Although the expected symptoms are exhaustion and thirst (much as it would be after any match) the risk of dehydration is significantly higher. There is also research that points that there is no obvious adverse effect of fasting is players are able to replenish their systems sufficiently- in a timely manner.

We must keep in mind that these are Professional Footballers and those who choose to fast might have been fasting for most of their adult lives. Which means they have trained, played and understand their bodies and the repercussions of playing while fasting.

They are not new to this phenomenon of fasting. Just because Western media has only now discovered Ramadan fits into the World Cup does not mean the athletes are unfamiliar with the process.

The don’t need to reconcile anything.

2) Observing the Month of Ramadan (much like all other worship) is a personal choice.

Muslims are not a monolith. All Muslims won’t necessarily make the same decisions.

Much like assuming that every single Catholic player will attend Mass is absurd. Fasting is not only a physical test but a mental test as well. We abstain from food and drink and strive to be patient and fair. Religious worship is incredibly personal- between a person and their Creator. Muslim players hail from every corner of the earth and might choose to take dispensations whereby they are omitted from fasting because of travel, work or health. They owe no person any explanations or defenses of their actions. We must trust that they will make the best decision given their circumstance.

3) Obsessing on whether a player is fasting while competing at such a level is reductive.

Algeria’s Head Coach Vahid Halilzodic expressed frustration that the focus was on whether his players were fasting and if that posed potential “weakness”. Rightfully so, he sternly reminded reporters: “When you ask the question, you lack respect and I’d like you to focus on the football and nothing else.”

Why not focus on the magnificent story of how Team Algeria they have reached the knock-out stage for the first time in history? In addition, they have the chance to avenge an injustice from 1982 known in football history as “the Shame of Gijón”.

An even more interesting story would be an in-depth look at the positive effects of immigration in European countries where Multiculturalism is frowned upon and xenophobia reigns high.

Or maybe some of the reporting on protest in Brazil and anti-FIFAdemonstrators?  There are too few reporters (with some notable exceptions) discussing those important issues.

France, Germany, Belgium and Nigeria all have players who identify as Muslims. The focus on their decision to fast or not should not be a the focus of World Cup stories. Their passion and hunger to win this tournament should be the focus. Muslim don’t require accolades or criticism of their decision to worship. 

Athletes fasted during the London 2012 Olympics and basketball fans will recall Hakeem Olajuwon fasted throughout his successful NBA career.

So, Muslim Athletes fasting isn’t exactly a “Breaking Story” unless it is from a completely different angle. (read: satire)

I have played football for over three decades and almost every year several matches were during the Month of Ramadan. I don’t play professionally butI play hard nonetheless. I know what is expected of me on the pitch and more often than not, adrenaline pushes me through. I would not disappoint my teammates and disregard all the work and effort I have put into my training.

Being a professional athlete requires dedication and drive. Being an observant Muslim requires commitment and spiritual intensity. That belief and connection to God is not something that is easily put aside. It is a part of the lives of Muslim athletes and has always been. Islamic history accounts that Muslims fought wars while they were fasting. So, a football match is not impossible.

The level of religiosity of a footballer has little correlation to their passion for winning the World Cup; No matter how hungry a journalist is to chase a Ramadan story.

Shireen Ahmed is a writer and advocate focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website.

About Dilshad Ali

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