The English Premier League is no stranger to making the headlines, but this week the competition attracted global attention for pausing a fixture for religious reasons. The Monday night game between Leicester City and Crystal Palace came to a standstill at the half hour mark, with Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guiata delaying a goal kick to allow teammate Cheikhou Kouyate and Leicester star Wesley Fofana to break their Ramadan fast.
When the Premier League started in 1992, England’s top flight had just one Muslim player, but as the league, and football as a whole, has boomed internationally, this has increased exponentially, surpassing 50 players in 2018.
With some of the game’s biggest names, including Mo Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Paul Pogba, all practicing Islam, there has been increased investment and accommodation for Muslim players in the sport, highlighted by the historic moment in Monday night’s fixture.
Over in the A-League, Newcastle Jets are making history too. Their squad currently contains four players observing the Ramadan, an all time high for the Australian division.
Ramadan is one of the most holy times of the year in the Islamic lunar calendar.
For a whole month, Muslims across the globe embark on thirty days of fasting, prayer, reflection and good deeds to commemorate the Qur’an being revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God.
As we pass the mid-way point of this holy month, Newcastle Jets’ Ali Abbas gives us an insight into the challenges and benefits that professional footballers face while observing Ramadan.
“I’ve done Ramadan since I was a young boy, since I was 18. It is rough to be honest, but I think the first few years I done it, it was a bit tough. When I was training in Iraq we trained in the afternoon, so I had nothing to do so I could rest and sleep. But when I move to Australia, it is a bit different.”
Baghdad born Abbas has spent much of his career playing in Australia, after claiming asylum while on international duty with Iraq U23s in 2007.
Like many Muslims observing Ramadan, he must fast during daylight hours, meaning he abstains from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk.
“Obviously you need energy to continue to train.
I have to get up at four in the morning and eat as much as I can and drink water to get everything I need to go through the day, and then by 4:45 I stop eating and drinking. I’ll go back to sleep for a few hours and then by 8am I will head in to training and do my rehab.”
Now in his second spell in Newcastle, he speaks highly of the support he and the three other players observing Ramadan have received from the club
‘To be honest, the staff are great to me, and all the boys doing Ramadan. They look after us very well and monitor our training, to slow it down for us. Four of our boys are doing Ramadan but they always try not to push us too hard. It’s been amazing.”
Nutrition has become a key part of football in the last 20 years or so, and it plays a vital role in the fitness and recovery regimes of modern players.
One would assume that training and playing without access to food and hydration, especially in a climate like Australia’s, would be energy sapping for those observing Ramadan. For Abbas, this could not be further from the truth.
“The first few days are rough, and after the end kill me a bit.
The last few years I begin to do a few weeks before Ramadan comes, I do four hours or six hours of fasting and drink no water, just train, to get my body used to it… but to be honest, since I start doing Ramadan, I feel so good. During training I feel so light and so sharp.
I feel great. For me, it helps me a lot with my recovery.”
There are mental benefits too.
“It helps me mentally and teaches me a lot… to be patient, not to do bad things, not to put things in my body that can harm my body or my brain and my soul…
It is a great month for me.”
Now 34, the A-League veteran has spent a lot of time learning and reflecting on his religion and what it means to him, both as a player and a person.
“If you want to know really about Islam you have to go and read about it…
The last four years I have read a lot about my religion. Before, I couldn’t have the time because I was young and it didn’t make sense to me, but the last four years I started thinking about learning more about my religion and other religions as well.
Islam is such a peaceful religion.
It teaches me a lot of things; to respect and love other people, respect other religion, because we all worship one God.
To love each other, help each other and others who need help and respect.”
While suspicion and misconceptions unfortunately remain, football has clearly made massive strides in understanding and accepting Islam. The hiring of Muslim chaplains, the addition of prayer rooms at stadiums and the introduction of a man of the match trophy in place of alcohol coming about in the last few years, all of which have undoubtedly been boosted by the influx of ownership, investment, talent and support from Muslim countries.
There is still work to do, but outlets sharing positive stories and giving the players and their managers the platform to give an insight in to their experiences, as many have in the wake of Monday’s significant moment, will go a long way to helping supporters develop a greater understanding.