Soccer Star Benched for Fasting During Ramadan

Jeff Israely, Yahoo! News, August 27, 2009

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which falls on different dates of the Western calendar each year, began on Aug. 21 in 2009, just in time for another event in Europe with near religious significance: the kickoff of soccer season. But the timing has sparked controversy in Italy, where in the past four days both a prominent coach and a team owner in the top Serie A league have linked the rigors of Ramadan’s sunrise-to-sunset fasting to Muslim players’ poor performance on the pitch.

Just 30 minutes into his team’s disappointing 1-1 tie Sunday with Bari, Inter Milan’s Portuguese-born coach Jose Mourinho pulled midfielder Sulley Muntari, a practicing Muslim, out of his home debut. “He was clearly struggling,” Mourinho said of the 25-year-old Ghanaian player during the postgame press conference. “It’s the month of Ramadan, and that’s what affected his performance, which is why I took him out.”

A top Muslim leader in Italy, Mohamed Nour Dachan, lashed out at the coach of the defending Serie A champions. {snip} “We know from sports medicine that the mental stability of an athlete lets him give so much more on the field, and a player observant in Christianity, Judaism or Islam definitely has a very tranquil psychology.”

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Italy’s sports pages duly took note of other Muslim players who observe Ramadan with varying degrees of strictness, including Siena’s Abdel Kader Ghezzal, an Algerian who scored a goal against AC Milan on Saturday. Though a practicing Muslim, Ghezzal says he does not fast on training and game days during Ramadan. Inter’s Muntari is more observant, though he reportedly ate pasta at lunch on Sunday, while refusing water before the match. Most imams say there are just a few groups of people exempted from the daytime fast, including pregnant women, the sick and the elderly. Though the Koran doesn’t cite any excuses based on profession, as with all other religions there are Muslims who are more and less observant of the letter of the law, with the requirements of their jobs sometimes playing a role.

Stefano Tirelli, the Milan-based personal trainer for Muntari and several other top soccer stars from Africa and the Middle East, says that depending on the playing conditions and the individual, lack of food and water can limit performance. He recalls his experience working for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar national teams, which featured less robust players in 100°F (40°C) heat, saying their speed and stamina were indeed affected by the Ramadan fast. {snip} “But mental strength, determination and, yes, religious force, for one month’s time, can easily overcome the deficit in proper nutrition.”

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