How the seven Muslim-majority teams have tackled Ramadan ahead of the World Cup

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Saudi Arabia's players during training at the Petrovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 10, 2018. (REUTERS/Anton Vaganov)
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Tunisia's head coach Nabil Maaloul hands dates to midfielder Naim Sliti, left, and defender Rami Bedoui during the friendly with Turkey. AFP
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Saudi Green Falcons goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem presents the team's scarf to a spectator during training at the Petrovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 10, 2018. (REUTERS/Anton Vaganov)
Updated 11 June 2018
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How the seven Muslim-majority teams have tackled Ramadan ahead of the World Cup

  • With the end of Ramadan coinciding with the beginning of the World Cup, teams with mainly Muslim players have had to balance training with religious obligations.

MOSCOW: For Muslims around the world, Thursday is expected to be the last day of Ramadan, yet for players of Saudi Arabia’s national team, the date takes on added significance. The Green Falcons will kick off the World Cup against hosts Russia in front of 80,000 fans in Moscow, watched by an estimated 200 million TV viewers worldwide. It is the country’s first appearance at football’s grandest showpiece since 2006.

Yet while the coming of Eid will be a day of celebration across the Muslim world regardless of the result at Luzhniki Stadium, for Saudi Arabia and the other six majority-Muslim nations competing at the tournament, their preparations this past month have proved challenging. Players, staff and coaches have had to find a balance between the religious obligations associated with Ramadan and the high-intensity training required to arrive at the pinnacle of their careers in peak condition. 

With the holy month obligating Muslims to abstain from eating and drinking between daylight hours, teams have had to be creative in their approach to training and friendly matches. 

Hector Cuper, the Argentinian coach in charge of Egypt’s national team, last month aired concerns about his team fasting, saying he was “afraid that it could badly affect the players at the World Cup.” His concerns are justified. 

A 2007 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that players’ performances “declined significantly for speed, agility, dribbling and endurance” while fasting. In addition, the “shift of food intake and disruption of sleep patterns affect actual and perceived physical performance.” Yet, as Algeria showed at the 2014 World Cup when they reached the knock-out stages despite the entire squad fasting, sometimes it can actually raise levels of performance. 

Egyptian team manager Ehab Leheta insists his players are trusted to make their own decision as to whether to fast or not. While some have elected to observe their duties throughout the entire month, even match days, Islam allows for exceptions, either for health reasons or for those who are traveling.

“It’s a very important issue,” said Leheta, who added everything is being done to ensure the holy month and the weeks thereafter go as smoothly as possible for the Egyptian team. “We’ve been planning it since the start of year. We have a nutritional program courtesy of a guy from England who we have brought on board. He has brought great value to the team, starting in Zurich (at our training camp in March) and will continue until the end of the World Cup.”

Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian forward who plays his domestic football with Liverpool in England, elected to break his fast last month after travelling to Kiev for the Uefa Champions League final. However, other players — including those in the Tunisia national team — have fasted the entire month, including during days in which they played World Cup warm-up matches. Ingenuity is required.

Against Portugal and later Turkey, Tunisia’s goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appeared to feign injury when the sun set, lying down on the pitch to receive medical treatment. With the referee immediately calling a halt to the game, Hassen’s teammates were able to rush to the sidelines to quickly drink water and eat dates. The fast-breaking maneuver seemed to work — against Portugal, Tunisia rallied to draw 2-2, while they also tied 2-2 against Turkey. Their opening game at the World Cup is not scheduled until next Monday, by which time Ramadan will be over.

Midfielder Wahbi Kazri conceded fasting has made Tunisia’s preparations tougher than usual. “It is very difficult,” the 27-year-old told Spanish newspaper Marca. “We cannot eat or drink. It is very complicated to prepare as we want.”

The majority of the Saudi Arabia team and staff have delayed their fast until after the tournament. No more than seven of the 20 Muslim staff are fasting, while four players, including vice-captain Tayser Al-Jassem and striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, have abstained from food and liquids on all but match days and the day directly before. Since Friday night’s 2-1 defeat to world champions Germany, however, even the quartet have elected to delay in order to be in peak condition for Thursday’s curtain-raiser.

“When you travel, you can delay the fast — you are not obligated,” Omar Bakhashwain, the Saudi team manager, said recently. “We have played during Ramadan before, it is not a problem. Our qualification was during Ramadan — when we played Japan and Australia — so we know how to deal with it. Also, our league in Saudi has been played throughout the holy month. We can manage these things.”

Mohammed Abdul-Fatah, the Saudi team chef, has worked with various age groups at the country’s football federation for more than a decade. Although the players’ hunger means they desire high-fat foods such as fried potatoes, Abdul-Fatah sticks to staples such as lamb, fish and pasta with boiled potatoes. Occasionally he makes saleeg, the traditional Saudi plate of chicken, served on a bed of white rice, cooked in a milk broth.

The Saudi delegation arrived on Saturday at their World Cup base in Saint Petersburg, where they will be stationed throughout the tournament. They will fly by private jet to each of their three games, in Moscow, Rostov and Volgograd. Yet while day-length in Riyadh this week is around 13 hours and 38 minutes, St Petersburg is celebrating “White Nights”, a month-long festival in which the sun barely sets. Today’s official day-length is recorded at 18 hours 41 minutes, although the sky remains off-white at 3 a.m.  

If it sounds like Russia’s second-largest city might be one of the worst places on earth to be based during fasting hours, it should be noted the city is home to a sizeable Muslim population. There are a reported 20 million Muslims living in Russia and 50,000 sites of Islamic worship, but most pale in comparison to the St Petersburg Mosque, the largest in Europe when it opened its doors in 1921. 

A grand building cast in turquoise and located a short walk from the famous Peter and Paul Fortress, it is a hive of activity during the holy month. During Ramadan last year, it welcomed between 1,500 and 2,000 Muslims for iftar each night. Players from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran and
Nigeria are all expected to visit during their time in the city.

“For us, fasting is never a problem, no matter how many hours per day are required,” said Shagimardanov Idar, president of the Association of Muslim Businessmen in Russia. “Muslims who fast don’t have discomfort with this.”

During last year’s Confederations Cup, Idar and the businessmen’s association invited Fifa for iftar, calling it a “big privilege” that secretary general Fatma Samoura — a Senegalese Muslim — attended. He said he expects around 100,000 Muslim fans to visit Russia this month and intends to host an event later this week. 

“It will be a nice day or two when Ramadan and the World Cup coincide,” Idar added. “We will organize a special iftar on these days.”


Paving the way for Mo Salah

Updated 18 June 2018
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Paving the way for Mo Salah

  • Long before the Liverpool star arrived in the UK, a handful of Egyptian players made the same journey
  • Mohammed Salah has the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

LONDON: The World Cup is underway, and the hopes of football-mad Arab nations are rising. Many eyes are on Mohamed Salah, star of the Egyptian team and of the English Premier League, to elevate the reputation of Arab footballers.

At Liverpool, the 25-year-old is adored. But he is not the first Egyptian that British football fans have taken to their hearts.

Long, long before Mo, there was Mustafa Mansour and Mohamed Latif in the 1930s and before them, there was Hussein Hegazi and Tewfik Abdullah. All were Egyptians foot- ballers who brought their dazzling skills to British clubs.

One was a striker who had poems written about him; one graced the cover of the top football magazine of the time; one was a goalkeeper regarded as a trailblazer for African football who later served as a government minister, and one played for Glasgow Rangers and went on to become his country’s top football commentator.

 

Hussein Hegazi

Hegazi was the first. Born into a wealthy aristocratic Cairo family in 1891, he honed his footballing skills by playing against British soldiers and by the time he arrived in England in 1911 to study engineering at University College, London, he was already known in Egypt as a prolific goal scorer, notching up 57 in one season. He was also a top-class runner, winning the national championships in the quarter mile and half-mile (equivalent to today’s 400 meters and 800 meters) four years in a row.

How he came to the attention of Dulwich Hamlet FC, a well-established non-league club in South London is unclear but he made his debut with them on Sept. 23, 1911, to great acclaim. With his wiry build (he weighed only 60 kg), he was de- scribed as having “a lightning drive.”

A match report in the local newspa- per, the “South London Press,” said: “The Egyptian gave a splendid exhibition... simply conjured with the ball.” Another report from Oct. 13 called him “the thinking man’s footballer.”

The fans loved him as much as the pundits and promptly nicknamed him Nebuchadnezzar.

It was not long before a much bigger club noticed him. Fulham, then in the Second Division (today’s Championship), were eager to sign him up, especially after Hegazi scored in his try-out for them against Stockport County on Nov. 11.

Alarmed at the prospect of losing him, Dulwich Hamlet manager Pa Wilson turned up at Hegazi’s lodgings. After listening to Wil- son’s pleadings, Hegazi felt honor- bound to stay at Dulwich.

“I was in a difficulty for I wanted to play very much in league football and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet, who have been very good to me,” he said. Wilson called Hegazi “as honorable a man as ever stepped on to a football field” and a writ- er for the “Athletic News” was moved to write a five-verse poem in tribute.

Hegazi did two European tours with Dulwich Hamlet and also played for the London county team. In 1913, he embarked on studies at Cambridge University but left before the end of his first year, though not before winning a Blue with the university football team. He played for the national Egyptian team in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and finally hung up his boots in 1932, aged 40. He died in 1958. A street in the Garden City area of Cairo is named after him.

 

Tewfik Abdullah

Tewfik Abdullah (sometimes spelled Tawfik Abdallah), the second Egyp- tian to play in Britain, was encour- aged by his friendship with Tommy Barbour, a Scottish soldier in the Brit- ish army serving in Egypt who also played fullback for Derby County.

Born in Cairo in June 1896, Abdul- lah, a midfielder, began his career with Cairo club. Mokhtalat, and played for the national team at the 1920 Olympics. He also played against the British army, where he met Barbour.

Abdullah made his English league debut in October 1920 against Manchester City and was instantly nicknamed “Toothpick.”

One possibly apocryphal tale about his first game relates that he came out on to the pitch asking, “Where’s me camel?” It transpired he was, in fact, asking, “Where’s Mick Hamill?” the City player he had been assigned to mark.

Abdullah scored in the match, which Derby won 3-0. The following month, he was on the cover of the magazine “Topical Times,” with the pyramids and the Sphinx in the background, as part of a feature on the fashion for recruiting players “from far afield.”

In 15 appearances for Derby County, Abdullah never scored again and in 1922 he joined Scottish Second Division side, Cowdenbeath, where he was nick- named “Abe” and was awarded the ultimate acco- lade when a local leading miner named one of his racing greyhounds Abe in his honor. Beset by injury, Abdullah only

stayed one season in Scotland. In 1923, he joined Welsh non-league Bridgend Town and a year later he was back in the league with Hartlepool, in the northeast of England. He made 11 ap- pearances, scored once and at the end of the 1924 season crossed the Atlan- tic to join the exotically named Provi- dence Clamdiggers.

He played for four more teams in the US and went on to coach, but America’s racial segregation laws — which meant he was often not allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white colleagues — dismayed him. He returned to Egypt in the late 1920s for a year but crossed the Atlantic again to join Canadian side Montreal Carsteel, spending the rest of his playing career there.

After retiring he managed Farouk Club (an old name for Zamalek) and in 1940 became manager of the Egyp- tian national team, taking them to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

More than a decade passed before an Egyptian again donned football boots for a British side — and then came a pair of them.

Goalkeeper Mustafa Kamel Man- sour and winger Mohammad La- tif were in Egypt’s 1934 World Cup squad, which was coached by Scots- man James McCrea.

 

Mustafa Kamel Mansour

Mansour, born in Alexandria in Au- gust 1914, began his club career with Al-Ahly. Latif, five years older, played for El-Mokhtalat, (another of Zama- lek’s past names). Encouraged by their mentor, McCrae, they arrived in Scotland in 1935 and enrolled at Jordanhill College to train as physi- cal education teachers.

The Glasgow Rangers wanted them both but Mansour instead chose to join Queen’s Park, Scotland’s oldest club and also the only amateur team in the Scottish professional league. He even turned down the huge sum of £5,000 — equivalent to around £340,000 ($455,000 or SR1.7million) today — to turn professional.

“It was a record at the time but I did not want to play for money,” said Mansour in a BBC interview in 2002. How times have changed.

He spent two seasons at Queen’s Park, where he was affectionately known as Tuffy, and played in al- most 50 league matches and eight Cup ties. He was also a popular adult member of the 72nd Glasgow Scout Troop.

Mansour returned to Egypt when war broke out in 1939, but his foot- balling career was far from over. Af- ter his playing days ended, he quali- fied as an international referee and then managed his old club, Al-Ahly. He was a top-ranking figure in Egyp- tian football and from 1958-61 he was secretary-general of the Confed- eration of African Football. He also served as a minister in the Egyptian government.

He died in 2002, a few weeks af- ter the interview with the BBC and a month before his 88th birthday.

 

Mohammad Latif

Five years older than his compa- triot, Mohammad Latif was from Beni Suef, south of Cairo, and by his early 20s, he was one of the best footballers in the country. His three goals against a British mandate football team during qualification rounds secured both Egypt’s place in the 1934 World Cup and Latif’s place in the squad.

The first non-white to play for Glasgow Rangers made his first team debut on Sept. 14, 1935, the same day that Hitler addressed 54,000 people at a mass rally in Nuremberg, an- nouncing laws against non-whites.

Unfortunately, Latif’s Rangers ca- reer did not progress well. His play- ing was described as “impetuous” and after that first outing, he was left out of the first team for seven months. His next game was also his last and he returned to Egypt to pre- pare for the 1936 Olympics in Ber- lin. He and Mansour both made the squad.

Latif rejoined El-Mokhtalat and continued playing for them until 1945. He moved into coaching and also attained international standard as a referee, before embarking on yet another successful career as a football commentator, achieving fame not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world as “the sheikh of commentators.”

Mohammed Salah may have the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

The names of Hegazi, Abdullah, Mansour and Latif may not echo so resoundingly through the annals of footballing history. But they were pathfinders and admirable ambassa-dors for Arab sportsmen. And that is a hard act to follow.