The beautiful game continues to break into all corners of the globe and is practiced by many different categories of people, including Muslims, who account for about one-quarter of the world’s population.
While Muslim players have no issues practicing and playing football during the majority of the year, they face a daunting task when it comes to playing during the holy month of Ramadan, at which time they refrain from eating or drinking from before dawn until after dusk.
The Journal of Sports Sciences, which is one of the leading Academic Journals in Sport Science, recently published a supplement study about Ramadan and football, featuring the findings of several doctors, including Hakim Chalabi and Yacin Zerguini, who is a member of the FIFA Medical Committee.
Prof. Jiri Dvorak, Chairman of F-MARC and FIFA's Chief Medical Officer, stressed to FIFA.com: "We are aware of the concerns of players and coaches about health issues and performance during the month of Ramadan and we are aiming for consensus toward practical recommendations."
The supplement is available here.
The study was published just days before the start of Ramadan, which will coincide with the start of the Olympic Games in London, where a number of Muslim players will take part in competitions including the Football Tournament. FIFA.com caught up with Zerguini and Chalabi to discuss the study, which could be a reference for Muslim football players who face the challenges of playing football during Ramadan.
Muslim footballers face many challenges during the holy month of Ramadan as they have to adapt to a different diet and a change of sleep routine and hydration. "We have been running tests for nearly ten years," said Dr. Zerguini. "There are a lot of challenges during Ramadan for athletes and the most important one is the challenge of sleeping.
"Fasting changes the chronological phase of players," he added. "It is important to know how to re-organise sleep and then it is important to deal psychologically with hydration and diet that change during this month."
While the study explains the different conditions for players who decide to fast and play football, Dr. Zerguini believes that the research can be a good reference for players, but that it is also up to each individual player to fast. "The aim was not to help or to assist players to decide to fast or not," he explained. "The main aim was to get maximum knowledge and to help the young athletes to deal with the situations."
The study also discussed the preparation strategies for players before games during Ramadan, and Dr. Zerguini revealed that these strategies depend on training times and weather conditions.
"There are different strategies and each case is different. The strategies depend on time, whether the training is in the morning or in the afternoon or in the evening. We also must have more information to organise the strategy according to the weather, as in winter it is more about nutrition and energy while in summer it is more about hydration strategy."
Dr. Zerguini, who is a pre-eminent specialist who has worked in Algiers’ best hospitals, gave examples of different football players who play at the highest levels in Europe and at the same time do not have problems during Ramadan. He explained that the best coping strategies for fasting during Ramadan remain up to the individual.
"These players play at this level and when they fast their level is even better," he said. "We have discussed the issues with these players. The message for all these issues is with the players themselves, not with the body's metabolism."
While fasting during Ramadan would not cause a major problem in Muslim countries and societies, it could be a problem for Muslim players who play professional football in non-Muslim societies.
Dr. Chalabi, previously the Medical Director for French giants Paris Saint-Germain, believes that there are serious issues that face Muslim players during Ramadan in non-Muslim countries.
"Usually, Ramadan is not a big issue in Muslim countries as the clubs change their training schedule. Matches will be played at night, which is not a big problem for Muslim players," said Chalabi, who was the Assistant CMO for the renowned sports specialist facilities in Europe, Clinique du Sport.
"However, there is an issue for Muslim players in non-Muslim countries, for example in France and England where there are a lot of Muslim players," he added. "The fact that nothing changes for these players during Ramadan, especially during summer where the day is very long, is a big issue.
"With this study, we decided to put recommendations to football players who will fast in order to reduce the risk of injury, poor performance and to adapt to the hydration issue, in addition to the sleep problem," added the assistant Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director of the National Sports Medicine Programme in Aspetar, Qatar.
Chalabi also talked about the recommendations given in order to achieve optimum sports performance during Ramadan and he has some advice for Muslim players who play with non-Muslim team-mates and in a non-Muslim society.
"The level of nutrition should change and also there should be a change in the quality of food in order to adapt to exercise," added Chalabi, who was the chief medical officer for Algeria’s national team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "Players have to hydrate in a better way, while the most important recommendation is to schedule a longer nap in the afternoon to get adequate sleep during the day.
"Usually players can't change the schedule of a game or training," said Chalabi, who worked previously with Muslim players like Nicolas Anelka during his time at Paris Saint-Germain. "However, players need to talk to their nutritionists in order to get better support and the trust of their coaches."
Ahmed Hassan, Egypt's captain and the most-capped player in the history of the game, agreed with Dr. Chalabi when asked about fasting for Ramadan in Europe. “I had problems with European coaches during Ramadan," he said. "But when they saw that I could fast and still play my part 100 per cent they understood that it didn’t necessarily have a negative impact on my performances. In fact I’d say the opposite was true."