'Ramadan means being closer to God' - footballers embrace fasting during holy month

Nujum Sports, a non-profit group, sent out Ramadan packs containing a travel prayer mat, prayer beads, Zamzam water and attar perfume to all Muslim players in England's four leagues

Amad Diallo is one of hundreds of players plying his trade in English professional football who observed Ramadan. EPA
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Manchester United’s Amad Diallo recently scored the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup sixth round at Old Trafford after 123 minutes and 57 seconds. It was dramatic, a 4-3 scoreline and the best moment both of the Ivorian’s career so far and of United’s season.

What few in the crowd knew was that Diallo was fasting for Ramadan. Extra time meant his goal was scored at 6.11pm local time, seven minutes before sunset in Manchester. Sunset was when he was allowed to break his fast and begin Iftar – taking on food or drink or the first time since before sunrise. By the time the sun did set, he was back in the changing rooms having been sent off for a second yellow card for taking his shirt off during his goal celebration. He was mentally energised from his achievements, but also now able to refuel his body.

Two days before the game, Diallo received a pack containing a travel prayer mat, ceramic jars to put dates in honey, prayer beads, Zamzam water (sacred holy water taken from a well in Makkah) and attar perfume, an oil-based scent commonly worn by men in the Middle East. Muslim players at all 92 clubs in the top four levels of English football have received one of these over the past four years – over 250 players across the leagues.

The following week at United’s Carrington training ground, the club’s Muslim employees held an Iftar in which coaches, physios, operational staff and players Diallo and Nikita Paris attended. There, a fantastic spread of Middle Eastern and North African food was put on by club chefs in the first team canteen. Manager Erik ten Hag called in to meet and greet all those there and offer his support. The group also prayed. Diallo was also present and told club media it was “very important” to spend “my first Iftar here since I have been here at Manchester United. Very important that we can pray together with the Muslim people.” One lady present said she was astounded that “the players can run so fast and be so focussed when they’ve had no food.”

At the same club, academy player Amir Ibragimov, a 16-year-old from Dagestan, Russia, recently posted a video about a day in his life during Ramadan. He prayed, he read the Quran, then worked out at the gym with a light session where he was thinking about food. At 6.15pm, he broke his fast and thanked his “mama” for the five plates of food put out in front of him.

Iftar is the second meal of the day for Muslims during Ramadan as the daily fast begins after the pre-dawn meal of Suhoor. Fasting Muslims do not eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset for 29 or 30 days, depending on the moon cycle. This is normal in countries with a predominantly Muslim population, less so in nations like the UK where 6.5% of the population identifies as Muslim – though the most popular global drink at Iftar around the world is Vimto, a sweet soft drink created in Manchester in 1908 as a herbal tonic and as an alternative to alcohol for the Temperance movement.

Life as a footballer during Ramadan depends on where you are.

“We have a mosque inside every stadium so we don’t need to miss one prayer,” Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan forward who has played in England, Italy, Portugal and now at Dubai club Al Nasr, told The National last month. “And now I’m fasting for one month because it’s Ramadan. In Europe, it can difficult to fast as a footballer because you train in the morning. Here it’s easier because we can train at night once we have broken the fast. In Europe, I didn’t even tell the coaches at some clubs because I didn’t want to give the manager an excuse to drop me. But my manager at Benfica, Jorge Jesus, he would say ‘just do 30-40 minutes today because of Ramadan’. He was very flexible. But then he’s managed in Saudi and knew of the culture.” In Saudi Arabia, it’s also normal for teams to train at night during Ramadan – a change for the non-Muslim players.

There’s an increasing awareness of Ramadan and the effect it has on players fasting in other top football leagues. This weekend, a stoppage took place during the second half of Aston Villa’s Premier League game against Wolves so that Moussa Diaby, who had put Villa ahead, and Wolves’ Rayan Ait-Nouri could break their fast at sunset. Both players took on fluids during the brief break. On Tuesday night, there was also a pause in play for Everton’s Muslim players to break their fast in their game against Newcastle United.

Last Friday, Ilias Chair of Queens Park Rangers in England’s second-tier Championship was fasting when he played against Birmingham City. The Moroccan played 98 minutes, having not taken food or water and was integral as defender Jimmy Dunne scored an incredible 92nd-minute winner.

Karim Benzema has been one of the best strikers in the world at times during his long career. Some of his best football came during Ramadan. He also claimed it had no impact on his training regime, stating: "Ramadan is part of my life and my religion makes Ramadan an obligation. For me, it’s very important and I feel good when I’m fasting."

“Benzema played his best football while fasting,” says Taarabt. “When you are believer of the energy that God gives you, it’s amazing.”

The packs which Diallo and other players received are supplied by Nujum Sports, a non-profit group which advises and guides. It’s timely. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, reflection, prayer and community. And for the next 20 years, Ramadan is going to be in the footballing calendar.

“Ramadan means being closer to God, being a better person, improving my religious knowledge and discipline – and I pray more,” explain Idris El Mizouni, a Tunisian who plays for Leyton Orient in England's third division. “Fasting only affected my performance as a footballer for the first few days and maybe the first game, because your sleep and eating patterns change, but after that I don’t feel that I’m fasting from food and hydration. Certainly not during the game, maybe after the game when you might want water.”

“Liverpool is a good example of how they manage players like [Mohamed] Salah, [Sadio] Mane and [Ibrahima] Konate,” says Taarabt. “Jurgen Klopp said that he adapted training, that he respected his players. This was amazing, I’m sure the players would do anything for him after that. And if one day I’m coach, I will always the respect the religion of my players.”

“Some players fast, some players don’t, it’s a personal choice,” explains Ebadur Rahman, the founder and chief executive of Nujum. “There are myths about that you can’t perform if you’re fasting, that your levels drop. It’s up to the players, it’s their prerogative. A lot of players fast home and away, especially those from Africa. Anwar El Ghazi scored for Villa in the 2019 Championship play-off. He’d made the decision not to fast, though Dean Smith, then Villa manager, had asked Anwar what time he wanted to train. He thought it meant individually, but it was for the whole team. Villa were promoted that season.”

Rahman is well-qualified to give support.

He works with The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) which manages the 600 match officials at the top level of English football. Their view is that one of the focuses during Ramadan is fasting (one of the five pillars of Islam), which involves abstaining from eating or drinking during daylight hours and this has clear implications for Muslim players, match officials and club staff, particularly on evening games when the fast can end during the match.

"Having worked in sport, I am well aware of the difficulties being able to practice my religion," he explains. "After speaking extensively to athletes and clubs, we felt it was the right time to have a Muslim athlete charter in place in the UK.”

For the evening matches where this may occur, PGMOL ensure that an opportunity during a natural stoppage in play is created to allow fasting club staff, players and match officials to come to the side of the pitch and take on liquids and energy supplements.

PGMOL engages all match officials in respect of this and for these games the team sheet exchange has been suggested as the opportunity to determine if anyone requires a short pause to break their fast, and agree the approximate time that the pause will take place. Similarly, match officials should also have the opportunity to break their fast and the referee will ensure that appropriate arrangements are made to facilitate this. This is applied across all competitions served by PGMOL match officials (including Premier League, English Football League, Women's Super League and Women’s Championship).

Nujum also serves as an advisory voice for football clubs in regard to the physical and emotional welfare of Muslim players, sending questionnaires to clubs and offering guidance on topics such as how to provide prayer rooms for Muslim players, as well as things to consider for academy players when living with host families.

Man City's Etihad Stadium hosts iftar

Man City's Etihad Stadium hosts iftar

Nujum organise Friday prayers at QPR and Manchester City every week for staff and players and times are changing. In 2012, after Yaya Toure politely declined a bottle of champagne following a man-of-the-match performance, alcohol was phased out and replaced with a small trophy instead. Other moves went largely unnoticed.

Following Manchester United’s goalless draw at Leeds United in April 2021, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked whether his decision to leave Paul Pogba on the bench until the 76th minute was in part due to a change in his fitness levels over Ramadan.

“I see you know your religion,” replied the United manager. “The fitness is a really big thing and Paul has got the quality [to play more than 15 minutes of football while fasting]. We were thinking, ‘Could we have gone a little bit earlier?’ Maybe.”

That month, Pogba removed a bottle of alcohol from the table at a news conference since drinking, promoting or advertising alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

The end of Ramadan will be followed by a three-day celebration, Eid Al Fitr, a religious holiday typically started with morning prayers, a large meal with family and friends and the exchanging of gifts.

“It’s actually quite hard to start eating normally again,” says El Mizouni. “Your stomach isn’t used to it, but that changes after a few days.”

“It’s a hard month, physically because you change your rhythm of life and don’t eat all day, but there’s so much peace, it’s amazing,” says Taarabt. “I feel that more in the Middle East in a Muslim country and go to the mosque every day. So I’m happy when it finishes … but then I can’t wait for the next Ramadan.”

Updated: April 05, 2024, 9:22 AM