The month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and family visits, with relatives and friends gathering together to break their fast at Iftar. Less well known is that this unique religious festival is the time that the Arab world indulges its passion for futsal. FIFA.com shines a light on the phenomenon.
The story starts at the dawn of the last century. When the cannon would fire to mark the start of Iftar, the evening meal when the fast is broken, makeshift football pitches used to magically spring up in the lanes and alleyways of Arab capitals. There enthusiastic young men would gather to play after their evening sustenance.
Back then the classic format was a futsal-like encounter between two teams of four or five players, with tournaments and leagues set up to pit sides from every working class neighbourhood against one another. Competitions would commonly run the length of the month.
It’s not just a sports competition, it’s more like a tradition, a ritual.
Over the years these leagues became a Ramadan fixture and the games moved off the streets and onto indoor pitches. In a number of Arab countries, especially the United Arab Emirates, where staggering numbers followed the game, these tournaments even became televised. Sponsors soon followed, and today an array of corporate investors - everything from telecommunications companies to mineral water manufacturers - pour thousands of dollars into the popular pastime.
One fan of this pastime is Dubai resident Khaled Abdel Rahman, who explained the phenomenon thus: “It’s not just a sports competition, it’s more like a tradition, a ritual. It’s normal for us to meet up with friends after Iftar to watch the games. There are usually some skilful players who put on a display of pure football.”
Then there is Mohammed Mustafa who, despite being 54, still turns out for his team. “I’ve played in the Ramadan leagues since I was 14," he said. "We’d play teams from other streets in the neighbourhood back then. These days my league is organized by the social club I belong to.”
Though still popular at local level, Ramadan futsal has moved beyond local youth centres and village squares. Propelled by a fanatical following the top-tier tournaments boast teams from professional clubs as well as government and educational institutes.
The tournaments the teams play in are commonly named after prominent businessmen or religious leaders. In some countries political parties have got involved, sponsoring teams and leagues in a bid to boost their popularity.
Professional football stars are often enticed to play, and there are few prominent Arab footballers who have not featured in a Ramadan futsal match at some point in their career.
This phenomenon, which began around the turn of the millennium, has caused tension with some of the bigger clubs, who fear their players might be injured either during a futsal game or making their way through the masses of fans that crowd around the pitches. Famous names to take the futsal stage include former Udinese playmaker Hazem Emam and Egypt’s international twins, Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan.