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Home   /   Ramadan in football: The problems Muslim players face and the effects this has on performance.

An article from the BBC stated that there could be a change in some Premier League matches over the next few weeks until Ramadan ends 2 May with the celebration of Eid. It will allow players to take on fluids or liquids during the game once the sun has set. This could happen during a throw-in or goal kick where there is a brief stop in play.

There are many unanswered questions with the relation between Ramadan and football because it is unclear to determine what the effects are for players on training and performance. It affects everyone differently, but there is evidence from players and biological investigation that can be taken into account. 

Ramadan occurs on the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, which form the basis of how Muslim’s live their lives. Fasting is important during Ramadan as it brings them closer to Allah by devoting themselves to their faith. Muslims must refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours. The idea behind Ramadan is to improve physical and mental self discipline. This would not cause much of a problem for Muslim footballers in Muslim countries, but it is a period of time when there is a higher risk of injury to Muslim football players who abide by the religion and play professional football in non-Muslim countries or are non-Muslim in a Muslim country.  

Adapting to a different diet and sleeping routine are two factors that Muslim footballers find difficult to overcome. Yacine Zerguini is the Confederation of African Football’s vice president for the medical commission. From a study developed by Yacine and several other doctors, Dr. Zerguini said: “There are a lot of challenges during Ramadan for athletes and the most important one is the challenge of sleep.” Re-organising sleep is very important and then dealing with refraining from hydration and diet comes second. It is suggested that in the week leading up to Ramadan, Muslim footballers should gradually alter their sleeping routine so it doesn’t come as a shock to them on the first day of Ramadan. Muslims should lengthen their napping time with the aim being to catch up on sleep. The optimal time to sleep during Ramadan is at 11 PM and have four hours sleep following iftar, which is the evening meal where Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast, then wake up at 3.30 AM for Suhoor, the first meal of the day eaten before Fajr prayer, the first prayer of the day, then return back to sleep at 5 AM for two hours. 

Once the sleeping routine has been amended, a player must face the challenge of refraining from eating and drinking between dawn and dusk. The study from the doctors also revealed that preparation strategies for players before and during games, is dependent on the times that the players train in the day and what the weather conditions are. Dr. Zerguini said: “The strategies depend on time, whether the training is in the morning or in the afternoon or in the evening. We also must have more information to organise the strategy according to the weather, as in winter it is more about nutrition and energy while in summer it is more hydration strategy.” For players in Muslim countries it is easy to accomodate to the needs for Ramadan but there is many players that play in non-muslim countries such as France. There are no changes made in these countries for Ramadan and it is a big issue during summer when the days are longer. To ensure healthy eating is maintained among athletes, coaches should advocate for them to consume varied foods rich in macronutrient profile and high in nutrients, which are essential for optimal performance and recovery. It is advised that players should get as much support and guidance from their nutritionist at the club, to give them the best diet and hydration plan according to them as an individual. 

Since the month is a period of time where there is higher risk of injury, especially to the muscles and joints, players must change the level of nutrition and quality of food being eaten to account for the exercise. Dr. Chabali, a sports medicine expert, advises players to hydrate better whenever possible and they need to drink more water than usual, at least 1.5 Litres more per day as soon as the fast is broken. Reducing the intake of fast sugars such as white bread, glucose sweets and baked potatoes at night is also advised, as it can lead to players craving more food when they wake up. A smaller pre and post workout meal can help increase caloric intake whilst maintaining performance and aiding recovery. The first week of Ramadan is the most dangerous with hypoglycemia being a risk to players, therefore personalised training sessions might be necessary to provide to Muslim players. From a study in 2009 on dietary intake and body composition of football players during Ramadan, it concluded that the effects were relatively small. Water, protein and daily energy intake increased whilst carbohydrate and sodium intake decreased, with the data suggesting that fasting had a small effect on diet composition despite the change in their pattern of eating.

Although many Muslim football players do follow the routine of Ramadan, such as Medhi Benatia who sees the month as a special way of celebrating Ramadan, there has been many players that decide not to. Some players decide to break their fast on match days. For example during the 2018/19 Champions League semi-final between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur, Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui did break their fast by taking liquid energy supplements. There are also players who decide to not fast at all such as Mesut Ozil during the World Cup in 2014  and Euro in 2016. This is because there are exceptions for some Muslims according to the Quran. Making a note of the days you don’t fast on and catching up on them at a later date can be done, or giving gifts and doing good deeds are also an alternative to fasting. 

Muslim football players should not be disadvantaged because of their religion or treat any different during the month of Ramadan, whether they decide to fast or not. The decision to fast or not is up to the individual, but coaches and sports organisers play an important role in providing accurate and updated knowledge for players to follow, which should help them during Ramadan to maintain physical and mental performance. From a medical point of view, Ramadan can cause both traumatological and cardio-respiratory concerns for players but respect, support and mutual agreement from their respective teammates, coaches and club is essential in order to decide the best strategy for training and competition. An idea to analyse the effect of Ramadan on players performance is for coaches to routinely collect feedback from athletes. This would allow coaches to see any differences compared to pre-Ramadan feedback and make any intervention. 

Despite the many questions and controversial debates Ramadan raises regarding the effects on players performance, there is no clear evidence that Ramadan negatively affects all Muslim players. The number of studies that have been conducted lack documentation of the problems it causes. There is no evidence to suggest there is a real drop in performance for everyone according to Dr. Chalabi. This is because there are athletes who have better results during Ramadan such as N’golo Kante who was a key part of the winning Europa League side in 2019. The players with better results do so because they decided that they want to fast, with Ramadan becoming a sort of spiritual and psychological aid to players. Egypt’s most capped football player Ahmed Hassan, agreed with Dr. Chalabi about fasting for Ramadan in Europe. He said: “I could fast and still play his part 100 per cent.” Hassan added: “It didn’t necessarily have a negative impact on my performances. In fact I would say the opposite was true.” Therefore, it is still unclear as to what the effects of Ramadan have on players as it is different for each individual. Physiological effects occur due to the change in the individuals diet and sleeping routine, but it is the psychological effects this change has that will determine the overall effect on performance.

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