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

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.”

Solid start in Asian Games for ‘work in progress’ Saudi Arabia

Updated 15 August 2018

Solid start in Asian Games for ‘work in progress’ Saudi Arabia

  • Saudi Arabian coach Saad Al-Shehri promised his U23 side will improve after goalless draw
  • Young Falcons are back in action on Friday, against Myanmar

JAKARTA: Saudi Arabian coach Saad Al-Shehri promised his U23 side will find their scoring boots after twice striking the woodwork on Wednesday night during a scoreless draw with Iran in the opening match of their Asian Games campaign in Indonesia.
At the Wibawa Mukti Stadium, the Young Falcons demonstrated impressive technique, particularly the midfield pairing of Al-Shabab’s Nasser Al-Omran and Al-Ahli’s Yousef Al-Harbi, but ultimately failed to take their chances against an Iran side happy to defend deep and play on the counter-attack.
“We played well, but not very well,” said coach Al-Shehri. “With the players we have, a better result was possible. The first match of any tournament is difficult and we played against a team who have a strong defense and implement fast transitions. We made three or four chances to score, so cannot be too disappointed. This is just the start though and we have at least two more matches. Now we must improve — and we will.”
As early as the sixth minute, Al-Qadisiyah striker Haroune Camara showed glimpses of why national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi had been tempted to take him to the World Cup this summer.
The strapping 20-year-old outmuscled two Iranian defenders before rounding the goalkeeper, but his shot at goal was bundled on to the post by a back-tracking defender. A minute later, Al-Ahli playmaker Ayman Al-Khulaif could have opened the scoring, but saw his tame shot cleared off the line.
“We tried our best, but we did not have luck to win,” said Abdulrahman Ghareeb, the diminutive Al-Ahli midfielder. “I promise in the next two games we will be better and get the results required to progress. We played well and remain confident.”
For all Saudi’s dominance, it was Iran who could have gone in with a goal advantage at the break when a defensive mix-up allowed Mohammedreza Azadi Andizeh to toe-poke past Mohammed Ayami in the Saudi goal. This time it was left to Abdullah Tarmin to clear off the line at the other end. And while Alyami was called into action again early in the second period, with the temperature recorded at 34 degrees Celsius, the intensity unsurprisingly waned as the game went on.
“Always, when the weather is hot like this, it makes problems and we saw that in the second half,” said Al-Shehri.
“We talked to the players at half-time about how to maintain the physical level until the end because if you play against a team like Iran that plays counter attack, you need to be wary of leaving big spaces in behind.”
Al-Shehri’s words seemed to work. In added time, and with a flurry of late substitutes sucking all rhythm out of the contest, a final energetic Saudi attack resulted in Nawaf Al-Habashi latching on to a smart cut-back from the byline and firing toward goal. Once again, however, there was a roadblock in the way as the ball cannoned back off the far post.
“We need to improve the team’s personality and build a good squad for the next tournament, the U23 Asian Cup,” said Al-Shehri. “That is what we are trying to do here. Win games, but also build a team that can qualify for Tokyo 2020.”
There is no time to waste in their quest — the Young Falcons are back in action on Friday, against Myanmar.