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.”


Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

Updated 03 August 2020

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

  • Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining
  • There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play

DUBAI: There may have been no football in Saudi Arabia for five months but the mind games are in full flow as ahead of the crucial top of the table clash in the Saudi Pro League on Wednesday, Al Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu has told Al Nassr coach Rui Vitoria that the pressure is all on him.

In the first game since March when the season was suspended due to coronavirus, Al Nassr in second, six points behind the leaders with eight games to play, can’t afford any slip-ups in the Riyadh Derby if they are to successfully defend the title they won last season.

“We are six points ahead and the opponent is under more pressure as they know they have to reduce the difference,” Lucescu told reporters at the pre-match press conference to the eagerly-awaited Riyadh Derby that will take place with no fans in the King Fahd International Stadium.

That points gap means that the smart money is still on Al Hilal to take league title number 16. Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining.

Not only that but Al Hilal have looked to be in better shape than their challengers in recent warm-up games with a 2-2 draw with second tier side Al-Shoalah following a 4-0 win over Al Riyadh.

“We have been looking forward to this game for a long time,”  Lucescu, who took Al Hilal to the AFC Champions League title in 2019, added. “The league suspension has been long and it has not been easy but we have focused on the mental side of things and aim to return strongly.”

The Romanian has been boosted by the return to fitness of Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo who has recovered from last week’s knock. With the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis signing a contract extension in July, Lucescu is in a positive frame of mind.

“We know the way they play and we know that it will be a tough game …but everyone is affected by the long pause and we all start at the same level. We are just going to take it step by step and stay focused.”

There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play. The former Porto star will be needed as fellow defenders Omar Hawsawi and Abdullah Madu could miss out through injury.

While Hilal may have the points gap, in terms of the personal battles between the two coaches, Vitoria has the upper hand. The Portuguese boss has yet to lose in three meetings with his Romanian rival in big games in Europe as well as Saudi Arabia.

In a final play-off to reach the group stage of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, Vitoria led Benfica to a 5-2 aggregate victory over PAOK, coached by Lucescu. After a 1-1 draw in Lisbon, the Portuguese powerhouse won 4-1 in Greece.

Earlier this season, Al Nassr inflicted Al Hilal’s only loss in the league this season so far with a 2-1 win at Hilal’s King Saud International Stadium in October with Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah getting both goals.

A similar result at Al Nassr’s home on Wednesday would breathe new life into the title race. Vitoria has stressed that recent friendly games were a chance to try out tactics and give players a run-out. Losses against Al Raed and Al Fateh however have given the Portuguese boss much to think about.

At the other end of the table.  Al Ittihad are just three places of the bottom of this 16-team league and in danger of the drop. The two-time AFC Champions League winners face a game on Tuesday at mid-table Abha where victory would provide the Jeddah giants with some much-needed breathing space.

The race for third and a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League is also a fierce one. Al Wehda are currently in the driving seat and host Al Shabab while Al Ahli in fourth and just two points behind host the struggling Al Hazem. Al Faisaly, Al-Taawon and Al Raed also have an outside chance of booking a place in next year’s continental competition.

All eyes will, however, be on the top of the table clash as Hilal can take a huge step towards the title. “I am happy with how the players have returned from the suspension and I am confident in  their abilities,”said Lucescu. “All we care about is winning the next match and that will help us win the league.”