Ramadan & World Cup coincide, but it’s no big deal

By Nasya Bahfen

The World Cup and Ramadan – the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset – last clashed in 1986. This year they did so again in spectacular fashion, with both the fasting month and the tournament’s Round of 16 in late June.

Prior to Brazil 2014, Muslims in a range of sports fasted during their regular club competitions, with seemingly little or no impact. In Australia, Sonny Bill Williams joins Hazem El Masri as rugby league stars who have fasted during an NRL season, and Bachar Houli in Aussie Rules.

NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon’s playing stats famously improvedwhile fasting in Ramadan. Liverpool and Cote d’Ivoire defender Kolo Toure says his body adjusts after the first few days.

This year, there are several Muslims in teams still in the knockout stages of the World Cup including at least five players from France, seven from Switzerland’s diverse squad, two from Nigeria, three from Belgium, two or three from Germany and most of the Algerian team.

 Two soccer players from the Maribyrnong Swifts, an all-female club who field two sides in the Victorian women's state league. Every Ramadan, Muslims who play sport at all levels face the challenge of fasting while doing so. Photo: Nasya Bahfen

Two soccer players from the Maribyrnong Swifts, an all-female club who field two sides in the Victorian women’s state league. Every Ramadan, Muslims who play sport at all levels face the challenge of fasting while doing so. Photo: Nasya Bahfen

There are several factors that suggest the clash of the World Cup and Ramadan this year won’t present a problem. For a start, there’s a general agreement among Muslim scholars that anyone who is travelling is included in the list of Muslims who are exempt from fasting, along with the sick, young children, and the elderly.

Several players have announced they will still be fasting, and won’t be seeking to make up the missed fasting days after Ramadan, as those claiming the travel exemption must do.

Algerian captain Madjid Bougherra who has played for a number of European clubs and fasted while doing so. Manchester City right back Bacary Sagna, who plays for the French national team, says he will continue to fast, citing the experiences of players who used to do so while playing in European leagues.

There is a growing body of research on coping strategies that Muslim athletes can undertake if they wish to continue fasting while playing, as FIFA found out.

Ramadan changes not just the amount of food and drink consumed by a fasting Muslim (none at all during daylight hours) but also his or her sleeping patterns (as a fasting person will get up pre-dawn for an early breakfast).

Muslims in general, not just those who play professional sport, are advised to consume a pre-dawn meal consisting of foods that release energy slowly throughout the day, as a listicle widely shared on social media in the days before Ramadan suggests.

Imagine the impact that a change in sleeping patterns and the timing of food and drink consumption might have on a professional athlete’s training regimen. Some studies suggest an increase in fatigue and a decline in speed and agility among Muslim athletes.

Others indicate that performance isn’t affected by fasting in Ramadan as long asregular training is maintained, and the same amount of nutrients are consumed (at night).

Finally, the Muslim world doesn’t have a central authority acknowledged by everyone who follows the faith.

This makes the fasting/sport equation even more complex because some religious figures looked up to by the players say that because of the nature of their jobs, they don’t have to fast even if they aren’t travelling and can make it up later or otherwise compensate for the fast.

Fasting exemptions for sports people are, of course, hotly debated and will probably continue to be discussed at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, scheduled for June 8 to July 8 in a year when Ramadan is expected to last until the first week of the tournament.

In a nutshell, it shouldn’t be an issue if Ramadan and the World Cup clash this year, as the players will be covered by the travelling exemption.

Those who don’t want to claim this exemption and still fast will be able to draw on the emerging research into how the body is able to adapt to fasting while maintaining physical performance.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.