I’ve been alive for 25 years, and I’ve performed Rozas (fasts) in the Islamic month of Ramadan for about 18 of those years. I still remember the first Roza I observed and completed when I was five years old. My aunt celebrated the occasion by getting me a garland of flowers and a lot of chocolate, and it remains one of my earliest and happiest memories to this day.
I’ve broken two fasts in my life out of the hundreds I’ve observed, with the first one being when I was in the third grade. I was at school, practising for our upcoming annual day, and little Taha could not take the physical load of dancing and jumping around dodging fake swords. I felt like I would collapse and rushed to have a sip of water.
When I went home, I told my mother what had happened, and there was a look of disappointment on her face. She did not scold me, but she told me that as I grew up, I would have to bear a little more during this month, and I can’t be giving up so easily. Since that day, the only other time I broke a fast was when I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendicitis operation. Unfortunately, that incident was out of my hands.
At this time, it feels appropriate to explain to those unaware what a Roza is. Rozas (or fasts) are performed during the month of Ramadan. During the fasting period, Muslims abstain from drinking any liquid (even water) and consuming food from sunrise to sunset (activities such as smoking and sexual intercourse are also prohibited). The duration of these fasts may range from as little as 10 hours to as many as 20, depending on where you stay and what month Ramadan falls in (the Islamic calendar has 354-355 days as opposed to the 365 days of the Gregorian calendar, so each year, Ramadan will start a few days earlier than it did last year).
Why do we fast? Well, long story short, fasting teaches us self-discipline; it reminds us of those less fortunate than us who often have to go without food and water due to a lack of resources and tells us to be thankful to Allah for all we have. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year.
During the month of Ramadan, my mother never allowed me to watch TV. I obliged (not happily, mind you) until 2014. The reason for that was simple: the FIFA World Cup was underway, and I was not going to miss that. It’s one of the few times I’ve had a massive argument with my mother, but knowing my love for football, she eventually gave in.
Ramadan in 2014 began on June 28, which is when the round of 16 in the World Cup had just started. The two remaining Muslim nations in the tournament, Nigeria and Algeria, were set to go up against France and Germany, respectively. Both the matches kicked off before sunset in Brazil, which meant that many of the players from the two African nations were fasting.
That was the first time I saw players play during a Roza. I’m sure there were a lot of instances of this happening before the World Cup, but these games stood out because these were Muslim nations with a lot of Muslim players. Only days ago, articles circulated on the internet about playing while fasting. My father (who doesn’t really care about football) pointed out this fact to me, and without a second thought, I told him there was no way these players would be fasting while playing a knockout game in the World Cup. As it turned out, I was wrong.
While German midfielder Mesut Ozil publicly claimed that it would be “impossible” for him to go without food and water during the World Cup, several sources reported that most of the Algerian team was fasting during the game. They ended up losing 2-1 in extra-time, and then-goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi refused to blame tradition for his team’s defeat:
“No, I don’t think [it was a factor], we were ready to play for as long as we [needed] to, nobody believed we were able to put in a performance like that. This is a personal question [whether my teammates fasted or not], it’s between us and God, I don’t think I have to answer you, Ramadan is a personal thing.”
The dedication awed me. I thought of myself as a good Muslim for observing all 30 (or 29) fasts that month. Although I was not a professional footballer, I did use to play cricket, volleyball or football during my school hours, but that was for 40 minutes twice a week; and by the end of that period, I was as close to collapsing as the proverbial goose. And, of course, I used to expend as little energy as possible, playing on a small field where the intensity of the game was minimal.
To think that these players trained for a World Cup game and played in it while fasting—outright unbelievable! They could have just not observed the fast that day; you had the chance to advance further in the biggest competition in the world, after all! But no, God’s orders come first. You may or may not believe that there is a God, or you may follow a different religion, but you do have to respect the dedication and the physical prowess of these players.
Could Algeria possibly have beaten Germany if the players had skipped the fast? We will never know. Do the players regret fasting on that day? Again, they refused to answer any such question, but I believe they would not change that even if you were to give them a time machine and ask them to order their 2014 selves not to fast.
In 2022, fasting in football is a more mainstream concept that more and more fans are aware of. It also helps that two of the best players in the world this season, Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah, are Muslims, with the Liverpool forward being arguably the most famous Muslim athlete in the world today (not to say that Benzema doesn’t have a bigger global reach, but Salah’s name, him bowing down to Allah after scoring, and being the face of one of the world’s biggest Muslim nations helps his case).
When you think of top Muslim players in today’s game, who comes to your mind? Salah and Benzema are obvious choices. There’s also N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Edin Džeko, and more on the list, many of whom fasted during the previous month.
This begs the question: how do Muslim footballers manage to fast while training constantly? Does fasting affect player performances? Is there anything they can do to combat the effect of fasting during the month while giving their best on the field?
From personal experience (and most of my fellow non-athletes will agree), fasting affects the mind as much as it does the body. If I keep thinking I’ll be tired tomorrow, I end up doing nothing but sleeping the entire day, waking up only when it’s time for iftar (breaking the fast). However, if I plan my day ahead and know that I want to get some things done, the day goes better.
Again, my work does not involve physical activity, and therefore, this logic is not entirely applicable to the lives and performances of footballers. But here is what Abdel-Zaher El-Saqqa, a former Egypt international with 112 caps, told Bleacher Report when asked how fasting affects his game:
“I always played well while fasting, I have no explanation, but I guess it’s God’s help and will. My best games were all during Ramadan—once, I even had to break my fast during a game when Adhan al-Maghreb time came.
“Egyptian players, including Salah, of course, have the experience of playing during fasting or after breaking their fast during Ramadan because it’s a thing they do over the years again and again.”
Just like constant practice leads to better results, you do get used to the demands of fasting as the days of Ramadan go by. While the first few days are pretty hard, about a week later, Muslims get more accustomed to the process, and work becomes easier. El-Saqqa applies almost the same logic in terms of playing football.
Of course, not everyone will be as comfortable playing during Ramadan as others. This is where the scientific part comes in, as nutrition and training are very closely monitored during the month to maximise players’ performances.
Again, to take a personal experience, I lost the most weight I ever did during Ramadan 2017. I lost eight kilograms that month by doing two simple things: replacing fried food with fruits during iftar and making trips to the gym right after the fast ended on an almost empty stomach. The first week was terrible, but I started to feel better about myself and got used to the process soon enough.
Dr Zafar Iqbal, the former head of sports medicine at Crystal Palace and a consultant in sports and exercise medicine, told Bleacher Report back in 2018:
“Certainly, the players I’ve worked with who have fasted have all said that they find fasting helps them mentally and that they feel even more disciplined and appreciative of what they have.
“Some players will fast during training and not during matches, and make them up later—especially as they will be travelling. Again it is a very individual decision to be made. I’ve found this with other Muslim athletes in other sports, such as cricket and rugby, where individuals fast during both training and games and feel it helps them mentally.”
A couple of other Egyptian footballers admitted that fasting only made them more focused as they believed they were closer to God during the month. Over time, the matter of not drinking or eating becomes part of your lifestyle, and the thought of it dwindles to the point where it does not cross your mind at all.
Recently, Kanté had a poor performance against Real Madrid in the Champions League and was subbed off for “tactical reasons”, the first time this had happened to him during his Chelsea career. Asked to comment on if fasting affected his performance, Thomas Tuchel said:
“At the moment, he is fasting due to his religion, due to his belief. Maybe another reason. He is not doing it for the first time, but if you don’t eat during the day for many days it can have an effect.
“He is used to it, but yeah, maybe it is also part of the explanation why we had the feeling he is not on his highest level.”
On the other hand, Mané was in the form of his life last month. He scored against Manchester City in the big Premier League clash, following that up with a brace against the same opponents in the FA Cup semi-final. Benzema broke his fast and entered the field 20 minutes later against Chelsea three weeks ago, scoring a hattrick in the Champions League quarter-final.
This suggests that performances during the month of Ramadan are purely down to an individual. I can’t tell you that fasting has zero impact on a player, but at the same time, the effect can even be positive. Faith often is a motivating factor rather than a hindrance, and no statistics or advanced data can quantify that feeling.
Breaking a fast during the game has also become more common. In a meeting between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at the King Power Stadium in April, a pause in play was granted so that Wesley Fofana and Cheikhou Kouyaté could eat.
When such measures are not in place, players often take more innovative routes to break their fast. In a friendly game between Tunisia and Portugal back in 2018, Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen feigned an injury during sundown so that his teammates could go on the sidelines and break their fast. Days later, against Turkey, Hassen stopped play by lying on his back. Talk about ingenuity!
Of course, awareness over Ramadan is now better than ever before, as mentioned earlier. As per Goal.com, this season in the Premier League, it has once again been agreed that captains can call for breaks in play during their pre-match meetings with referees. So we don’t expect to see Alisson Becker faking an injury for Salah, Mané, Naby Keïta and Ibrahima Konaté to indulge in some dates and water.
Unfortunately, Islamophobia in 2022 is also more mainstream and rampant than at any other time in my life. The hijab was recently banned in certain European countries such as France, the hate crimes against Muslims are increasing in the world’s biggest democracy (India), and there’s constant oppression of my fellow brothers and sisters in Israel and China… the list goes on.
During the month of Ramadan, we abstain from several worldly affairs. I try not to watch any television shows or listen to music—I won’t lie and say I succeed completely—but I do try my best to reduce the time I spend on such activities. However, I cannot ignore the distress my religion has faced over the years. While the actions of a few extremists can never be justified and denied, it almost seems as if being a Muslim is a red flag in today’s world.
Football, just like any other sport or any other form of entertainment, is an escape at the end of the day. That’s not to say that the result of my favourite team won’t affect my week, but when the game is going on, the problems of my life disappear. Suddenly, I’m not thinking a lot about my future or how the country I grew up in is becoming hostile towards my religion, but I’m thinking of how Salah can exploit the opponent’s defence, or how getting past Virgil van Dijk must be like trying to bore a tunnel through the centre of the Earth. For 90 minutes, there’s a sense of peace, even if I’m shouting at the TV or even if my team is losing.
Football, unlike any other sport, is a global game. Basketball is expanding its borders, a lot of people now watch F1, but football remains the world’s favourite sport with the biggest audience. To see a Muslim footballer at the peak of the game just warms my heart.
In an article about Mo Salah back in 2018, I wrote:
I have seen hundreds of games in my house, and my loud shouts past midnight have often woken up my family. Yet, my mother cannot (or refuses to) remember the name of the team I support–Liverpool Football Club. But a few months of Mohammed Salah, and she knows his name as well as Steven Gerrard’s, the man I grew up admiring and due to whom I support the Reds in the first place.
Two weeks back she sent me a link to a YouTube video which was a highlight of Salah’s debut season with Liverpool. Accompanying the link was a message. ‘If you were as dedicated in your prayers, you would also be as humble and as big.’From “Mohammed Salah: More Than A Footballer” by Taha Memon
In the holy month of Ramadan, just like me, millions of Muslims are closer to the religion and to Allah than at any other time in the world. Players like Pogba, Benzema, and Salah have millions of followers, and they impact the lives of thousands of people both on and off the field.
For example, according to a Stanford University study done back in 2017, since Salah joined Liverpool, hate crimes in the area have decreased by 19% and anti-Muslim comments online have dropped by 50%. In the eyes of Allah, worldly success does not matter. Only He knows the actions of people behind closed doors and what they have done for the religion, and it’s safe to say that Salah has done a lot just by being himself.
There’s a lot of awareness raised about Islam during the month of Ramadan. Fasting, abstinence, more prayers and fewer distractions constitute the theme of the month. The importance of fasting and the month of Ramadan has been mentioned multiple times in the Holy Quran:
O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous.Surah Al-Baqarah 2:183
…Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.Surah Al-Baqarah 2:185
On the 27th night of Ramadan, also known as the night of Laylat-al-Qadr (when the archangel Jibril revealed the first verse of the Quran to Prophet Muhammed SAW), the entire Muslim community sits down in their local mosque, or at their house, to pray to Allah for forgiveness. We also thank Him for all He has provided to us and pray that we may never forget how gracious He has been.
Salah and Benzema are millionaires, and non-religious logic would dictate that skipping one fast, or even the entire month, would do them no harm. They already have everything you could desire in this world—why make life harder for yourself, especially during this time of the season when there is so much to play for?
But when Salah and Mané bow down to Allah after every goal scored, or when Benzema and Pogba share images of them attending Mecca (the holiest Islamic city in the world) to their millions of followers, it sends a message. A message of good faith, a message that as great as we are in this world, we are preparing for what awaits us beyond this life.
You may not believe in the afterlife. You may even find the concept of religion or religious customs to be regressive, something that has no place in the 21st century. But to me, a Muslim man who has seen how my community has been treated over the last two decades, it means the world.
The S in Superman stands for hope.Kal-El
To me, a football fan, these men are my supermen (well, not so much Benzema, he is taking the Ballon d’Or away from Salah with his performances! But you get the point). When they fast or when they bow down, millions feel happy. And in a way, isn’t that what this beautiful sport is all about?