Ramadan and the World Cup

Updated: Jul 6 2014, 20:55pm hrs
After A battling Algeria were knocked out of the World Cup in Brazil, many commentators put it down to the fact that the month of Ramadan had already started and many of the players were fasting and hence lacked the strength and energy required for a make-or-break match against tough opponents, Germany. The Algerians lost 2-1. Later, the coach made it clear that fasting during Ramadan was a personal choice and players could make their own decisions on the issue. For Muslim footballers still playing in the World Cup, its a tough decision whether to hold the month-long religious fast this year or to give up their holy custom in order to play at their peak. During Ramadan, which started from June 28, every adult Muslim is expected to refrain from taking in food or liquids during the daylight hours. With the knockout rounds of the 2014 Fifa World Cup coinciding with Ramadan, Muslim players are in a dilemma. One of them is Mesut Ozil, the midfielder who scored the winning goal for Germany. Ozil, who plays for English first division club Arsenal, has said that he has decided not to fast, saying it was impossible to observe Ramadan this year, considering Germany are in the last 16 and will need every player to be at their peak physically. More so since almost every game at this stage has been going to extra time or penalty shootouts, which take the game way past the 90-minute mark. The Belgium-USA match went the full distance of 120 minutes.

Unlike in 1986, the last time Ramadan clashed with the World Cup, there were very few Muslim players in the final stages. This time, almost every team in the last 16 has a fair share of Muslim players, including France, Germany, Switzerland (beaten by Argentina last Tuesday) and Belgium. During the 2012 London Olympics, which also coincided with the month of Ramadan, many Muslim athletes faced the same problem. For sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, clearly, the national stakes are so high that many countries relax the Ramadan rules for the period: athletes and players are allowed to fast in another month or donate to charities. The rule relaxation was originally permitted to soldiers and travellers. Bacary Sagna, one of the Muslim players in the French squad, has already said that he will not be fasting during the World Cup. As a Muslim, I know that there are certain rules that allow us to avoid it. I totally respect those that will do it, he said. Ozil, for instance, has been backed by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, who reached an agreement with the German Football Association. The Central Council had asked for an expert opinion by the Islamic Al-Azhar academy in Cairo, which came to the conclusion that fast-breaking is allowed for professional footballers.

However, other countries like Algeria, which qualified for the last 16 for the first time in their World Cup history, took a conflicting approach. A group of religious scholars had said that the fast exemption provision was only for voyages undertaken in the search for knowledge, for health reasons or if fighting jihad, and not for playing football. Algerias government-appointed High Islamic Council issued a different statement, which was in favour of those players who want to delay their fast. Sheikh Mohammed Sherif Kaher, the head of the bodys commission for religious opinions, said that those who are playing can abstain from fasting. Before the match against Germany, Algerian captain Madjid Bougherra had admitted that it will be a big challenge for all the Muslim players to fast and maintain their performance level simultaneously. He said he had decided to fast. Algeria are out, but for players still in the tournament who decide to go on with their fasts, they will not only be devoid of food, but also water in the hot and humid climate of Brazil. Some Muslim players have become stars in this World Cup, including Karim Benzema, Bacary Sagna, Mamadou Sakho and Moussa Sissoko from France; Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira from Germany; and Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj from Belgium. Some teams may be eliminated by the weekend, but it has raised important questions about religion and sport.