THIS year Ramadan begins on June 28th, just as the knockout stage of matches gets under way at the World Cup. It is the first time since 1986 that the tournament has coincided with Islam’s holy month. This will cause a dilemma for some Muslim footballers. During Ramadan observant Muslims are expected to refrain from eating, drinking and sex, from dawn until sunset. Contrary to their licentious reputation, most players can cope with the latter. Nutrition, though, is considered critical to a sportsman’s preparation—particularly in Brazil, where the climate can be punishing for even the best-prepared athletes. In Fortaleza, which is hosting several big games, daylight lasts around 12 hours, with the sun rising and setting at around 5.30am and 5.30pm. The average maximum temperature in July is 30ºC (86ºF); humidity reaches an average of 92%. How do footballers who observe Ramadan cope?
Many teams in this World Cup have a large Muslim presence—and not only those representing predominantly Islamic countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Algeria and Iran. Star players from France (Karim Benzema), Germany (Mesut Özil), Switzerland (Philippe Senderos), Belgium (Marouane Fellaini) and Ivory Coast (Yaya Touré), among numerous others, will have to decide how to deal with Ramadan, should their teams make it that far in the competition.
Players are advised to eat plenty of slow-release carbohydrates, like sweet potato and corn, outside of fasting hours, according to Zaf Iqbal, Liverpool FC’s club doctor. They should also avoid anything with too much sugar, which is a quick-release carbohydrate. However, sports nutritionists suggest that the lack of fluid has a bigger impact than the lack of food. Dehydration can affect cognitive functions. Muslim athletes often report feeling fatigued and can suffer from mood swings during Ramadan, according to a 2009 paper in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. It can also increase the risk of injury. Muslim footballers are told to drink plenty of liquid before dawn, and to make sure they do not train during the hottest parts of the day. Indeed, as fasting can also affect sleep patterns, some team doctors advise players to take a siesta instead. Where such steps are taken, most studies suggest that athletes’ training performance is not adversely affected.
But dehydration during matches could be a problem. Unlike training sessions, match times cannot be tailored to a sportsman’s needs. So many Muslim athletes take a pragmatic approach. While some, such as Kolo Touré (pictured), an Ivory Coast defender, are strict observers, others, like Marouane Chamakh, a forward for Morocco (which did not qualify), fast on most days but not on the eve of a game or on matchday itself. (Mr Chamakh says he makes up the lost days later in the year.) Others postpone fasting altogether during important events. During the London Olympics in 2012, which also coincided with Ramadan, Abdul Buhari, a British shot-putter, told the Guardian he believed it was impossible to stay in peak condition while fasting, so he came to another arrangement: “I believe God is forgiving, and I’ll make up for every single day I’ve missed.”