When Senegalese striker Demba Ba got off to a slow start with Newcastle United after joining them in July 2011, his coach, Alan Pardew, blamed it on his decision to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. “It’s difficult for strikers. Fasting takes their sharpness away,” Pardew said in a post-match interview.
A devout Muslim, Ba partakes in the annual custom of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset throughout the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims. Special exemptions are made for children, the elderly, those who are physically or mentally incapable of fasting, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and travellers.
For the vast majority of Muslim scholars, athletes do not automatically qualify for an exemption. “The ruling for a person to not fast is the same for footballers and non-footballers alike,” says Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a scholar who is based in Manchester, England, and has studied Islamic jurisprudence.
“Footballers have to start the day off fasting and then, if they are coming to a moment where the physical exertion makes them ill or they are about to suffer clinical dehydration, they may break their fast depending on how dangerous it is.”
The practice poses a major problem in top-flight football, where clubs invest hundreds of millions of dollars in players and every aspect of their daily routines is microscopically examined and managed. Ba disagreed with his coach’s assessment.
“People said it was because of Ramadan, I just said it’s because I was joining a new team,” he said in the 2013 BBC documentary The Muslim Premier League. “Every time I had a manager that was not happy with it, I just say listen, I’ll do it [fast]. If my performances are still good, then I keep playing. If they’re bad, you drop me on the bench and that’s it.”
Ba’s experience is commonplace for Muslim players competing at the highest level. The tension resurfaces annually and athletes must either make a decision to perform their religious obligations and face scrutiny, or break the fast in spite of their religious beliefs.
A whole decade later, Ba has reportedly had to deal with the same pressure he faced in Newcastle. Rumours emerged in mid-April that Ba had parted ways with Istanbul Başakşehir owing to a disagreement with his coach over fasting on match days.
On the other end of the spectrum, high-profile athletes such as Leicester City defender Wesley Fofana and National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kyrie Irving have drawn positive headlines for putting in outstanding performances while fasting. In the English Premier League, Fofana is spurring Leicester on to a possible top-four finish and Uefa Champions League qualification, while Irving has averaged more than 25 points per game for the Brooklyn Nets since Ramadan started in the United States.
To date, there is no scientific evidence that backs Pardew’s perception that fasting hinders peak athletic performance, nor is there any proof to the contrary. The central study on the impact of Ramadan on football was published in 2012 by the Aspetar Orthopaedic Centre and Sports Medicine Hospital in Doha, Qatar.
Yacine Zerguini, a member of the Confederation of African Football’s medical committee who contributed to the study, summarised the findings of the study by stating they were not universal.
“There is no global, unique result for the research. The conclusion, in my opinion, is that each case must be treated individually,” he said. “One has to remember that it is highly likely that the effects of Ramadan are also linked to the spiritual qualities and physical capabilities of each athlete. Faith and belief is a big factor. If players believe fasting will have no impact on their performance, then it probably will not. If they have doubt, then they better eat.”
The consensus of Zerguini and other medical experts is that it is indeed impossible to quantify the mental aspect of negatively pressuring a player to break their fast, and it is equally impossible to gauge the effect of a player’s spiritual motivation on their performance. Such findings are corroborated by athletes themselves.
Nigerian NBA player Hakeem Olajuwon was named Player of the Month in February 1995 when he was observing Ramadan. The Houston Rockets centre averaged 29.5 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game and 3.4 blocks per game during the run.
He was quoted as saying, “I was better in Ramadan – more focused and lighter. Fasting made me stronger and my stats were more efficient.”
Tanzanian long-distance runner Suleiman Nyambui was fasting when he ran in the 1980 Olympic Games, taking silver in the 5 000m. “Once you have decided to do something, Allah is behind you,” he told USA Today at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
On the other hand, during the 2014 and 2018 Fifa World Cups, a host of other Muslim athletes such as Belgian midfielder Nacer Chadli and German playmaker Mesut Özil took another route and sought religious rulings that allowed them to delay Ramadan fasting until their schedules were less demanding, based on the fact that their national teams were abroad and they were travellers.
“There is a difference of opinion on if a person travelling for a long period of time can be exempt from fasting,” Niamatullah points out. “The answer is going to depend on the scholars’ opinion of what constitutes travelling… Some schools of thought do not set dates or times on travelling. As long as a person is abroad, they are exempt from fasting. Other schools of thoughts stipulate that if you know you are going to be in a place for an extended period of time, then you are not considered a traveller and God knows best.”
Thankfully, as the general European footballing sphere becomes more tolerant to Muslim customs, footballers are beginning to grow comfortable with their decisions to either partake in or postpone Ramadan fasting.
With more than 40 Muslim footballers in the Premier League, the division has predictably been at the vanguard of tolerance in European leagues. Virtually all British clubs offer halaal meat in their canteens, while Wembley Stadium broadcasted the Islamic call to prayer and is hosting a virtual breaking of the fast this year.
But beyond halaal food and quick Twitter public relations videos of stars wishing Muslims around the world a “Happy Ramadan”, what can clubs do to practically accommodate Muslim players who do indeed decide to fast?
Across the Muslim world, football timetables are changed during Ramadan to accommodate footballers, from training sessions to matches. Completely altering the footballing schedule is not realistic in certain parts of the world, but creating nightly individual training programmes for Muslim players who ask for them would be helpful. Most experts agree that training after sunset is best and players may take afternoon naps to compensate for a lack of sleep, allowing them to train and recover as normal.
In coordination with various Tunisian youth national teams, a study completed by Sport Singapore (formerly the Singapore Sports Council) showed that the performance of six repeats of a standard Wingate test taken after sunset was no different from tests processed pre-Ramadan.
In addition to flexible training regimes, clubs and league officials can make smaller gestures such as being mindful of a player’s physical wellbeing, or instituting game breaks at sunset for quick hydration for fasting players.
Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers and his club have set a great example this year in accommodating Fofana. With the Foxes up 3-0 against West Brom late into the second half, Rodgers took Fofana off for an early break so he could hydrate and begin recovery.
“It’s remarkable. If you think of his performance at the weekend in an FA Cup semifinal where he hasn’t eaten all day and then he had his first taste of food with 15 minutes to go, and then the same today, with an 8pm kickoff, he’s not eaten all day or drank and he can still perform to that level,” Rodgers said after the match.
In the early stages of Fofana’s next match against Crystal Palace, the match official instituted a short break at sunset for Fofana to suck down an energy gel and take a gulp of water. After the match, the up-and-coming defender tweeted: “Just wanted to thank the @premierleague as well as @CPFC, @vguaita13 and all the Foxes for allowing me to break my fast tonight in the middle of the game. That’s what makes football wonderful.”
Although the substitution and game break may not have been necessary, they did show compassion, understanding and goodwill. Above all, in a month that encourages unselfishness, charity and improvement, they bode well for the current crop of Muslim footballers who won’t have to deal with the pressure of choosing football over faith.