Ramadan in football: Salah, Mane & how players prepare for Champions League & AFCON big matches

The Liverpool duo will be getting ready for a crunch clash against Barcelona, but how will they prepare for the game while having to fast?

The image of the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane immediately taking to the ground and kneeling after they score a goal in celebration – known as the act of sujood – is familiar to most. They kneel in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holy city, and do so to show their gratitude for scoring and to maintain their spiritual connection.

What isn’t quite so apparent about Salah and Mane is the dedication they have for their faith and the practices they follow in the name of Islam. This year, Ramadan – a month observed by followers of the religion to participate in the act of fasting – takes place between May 5 and June 4 each day from dawn until dusk and requires just as much mental stamina as it does physical. Ramadan culminates in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr for Muslims worldwide from June 3 to June 4.

But with the actual month of Ramadan taking place during the final few weeks of European football, how do players such as Salah, Mane and Paul Pogba cope with having to abstain from eating and drinking for more than 12 hours?

As devout Muslims, they will, of course, be observing Ramadan this year and had to prepare for last year’s World Cup tournament in July while fasting. The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations has already been pushed back a week to commemorate African Muslim players who fast, allowing players to rest after Ramadan. The tournament was originally going to begin on June 14, but will now commence on June 21 and conclude on July 19.

Ramadan begins the week that Liverpool host Barcelona in a crucial Champions League semi-final at Anfield and they will look for a way back from a 3-0 deficit. It is also a key last few weeks of the season for the Reds as they look to win their remaining two games against Newcastle and Wolves for a last-gasp shot of clinching the league title from Manchester City.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast in order to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran (the Islamic holy text) to Muhammad according to Islamic belief. Fasting involves not consuming food or liquids from dawn (Suhur) to dusk (Iftar), in addition to refraining from ‘sinful behaviour’ and bad thoughts including swearing and aggressive thoughts with the idea of ‘cleansing’ both the soul and mind. 

In the UK, Suhur, which is eaten in the morning, can be had as early as 2:30am GMT while Iftar (the breaking of fast at dusk) will be observed after 8:33pm GMT. This means that footballers will not able to hydrate or consume any nutrients for more than 12 hours, which can prove extremely taxing if you’re meant to be exerting an incredible amount of physical energy on the pitch. Fasting during the summer months is especially difficult due to the longer hours and warmer temperatures, where the basics of regularly hydrating could save lives.

Fasting is obligatory for adult Muslims, though those who are suffering from illness, travelling, elderly, pregnant, breastfeeding, menstruating or chronically ill are exempt. Athletes and those who participate in physically demanding sports are also exempt from fasting on matchday. 

Under Islamic teachings, it is allowed to break or postpone your fast “with anything that is an adequate need” in order to preserve one’s health, which is why Salah refrained from fasting during last season’s Champions League final against Real Madrid on May 25. Doing so does not make you a less devout Muslim.

It had been previously reported that Salah would continue with his fast for the final, though the club’s physiotherapist said that he would break his fast in order to prepare for the game.

“We were in Marbella and the nutritionist established a work plan,” Ruben Pons told Spanish radio station Cadena SER. “Tomorrow and the day of the match he won’t, so it’s not going to affect him.”

“Religion is private, how I understand it,” Jurgen Klopp said in his pre-match press conference. “Nothing to say about that but all fine you will see him out there. In training he is full of power – you need to be the day before a final.”

With Ramadan beginning on May 4 and Liverpool playing Barcelona at Anfield on May 7, Salah and Mane could also decide to suspend their fast in the build-up and preparation for the fixture.

Kick-off for the European fixture is at 8pm GMT, and with Iftar to occur at around 8:33pm GMT from the beginning of the month, the duo could break their fast at half-time.

Several World Cup teams whose squads are majority Muslim made the decision to suspend their fast in the lead-up to the tournament, with Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam granting an exemption to the whole team.

Senegal, another Muslim-dominated country, also faced the same issues during the World Cup and it was reported that the players collectively agreed not to fast ahead of the competition.

For those who do decide to fast during high-intensity matches, however, such as the Algeria team during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, alternative measures are taken to make sure that the players remain healthy while playing. Algeria goalkeeper Rais M’bolhi broke his fast during half-time with dates and water.

Other teams will accommodate fasting by moving training hours to the late evening when the players are allowed to eat and drink. Nutritionists and trainers will adjust the diet and conditioning habits accordingly, avoiding buffet-style meals to further regulate the players’ intake.

While this year’s AFCON was delayed a week to allow for further rest after Ramadan, predominantly Muslim countries would further accommodate their fasting players by moving kick-offs from the daytime to the evening.

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The Palestine team, for example, would send the players to the gym an hour before Iftar to jolt their metabolisms, as well as serving the players equal parts carbohydrates (such as rice) as well as protein and salads. Taking ice baths during the day is also common.

“The most important thing is for players not to remain too sedentary during the day,” said Bader Aqel, a former physician for the Palestine team. “We want to avoid having the players sleeping too much [which is a common occurrence during Ramadan].

“We stress to the players that they drink at least three litres of water after sunset to fight against the effects of dehydration.”

And so, Muslim players’ approach to fasting during Ramadan while balancing their fitness as well as their health differs – and their choices don’t make them less devout Muslims. Players such as Salah might decide to suspend their fast on the day of a game, while others may choose to alter their training regime to avoid fainting due to dehydration.

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