How European Soccer Made Peace With Fasting During Ramadan


Youseff Chippo had a secret.

A few months into his life as a soccer pro in Europe, Chippo, a Moroccan midfielder, was pushing to prove himself and didn’t want to do anything that might hurt his chances of success. That included revealing he was fasting for Ramadan, a normal practice for the world’s billion Muslims but not in the locker room of Portugal’s F.C. Porto in the winter of 1997.

The team’s double practice sessions — morning and afternoon — were arduous. Taking part while going without food and water from sunup to sundown made things harder. Eventually, after enduring days of dizziness and headaches in silence, Chippo came clean, and the club quickly put together a plan to preserve his energy and his health.

For decades, though, other Muslim players found teams to be less accommodating, at least officially. So in a sport where continuous play and a lack of substitutions offer little opportunity for a mid-game trip to the bench, those players have long relied instead on resourcefulness and improvised solutions to break their fasts: teammates who faked or embellished injuries just after sundown to buy a moment for their Muslim colleagues to rush to the sideline; a few dates or a sugary drink slipped into a hand by a staff member at the appointed hour; trainers rushing out to attend to an injured knee carrying a kit curiously well-stocked with bananas.

But more recently, soccer, which once saw fasting by Muslim players as something to be discouraged or criticized, is actively changing its ways. In a shift that reflects both the increasing prevalence and the soaring value of soccer’s Muslim stars, some of the world’s richest leagues and teams — with one notable exception — have moved to fully embrace Ramadan fasts.

In Europe, that means many Muslim players now benefit from bespoke nutrition plans before and during the monthlong holiday; fast-friendly practice schedules; and even league-approved stoppages in play that let them break their fasts on the field during matches.

Some of the changes reflect a new acceptance of diversity in wealthy competitions, like England’s Premier League, whose reach and fan bases long ago spread beyond domestic borders. There are more practical reasons for the changes, too. Muslim players now represent an investment worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the world’s elite teams, and those players are increasingly vocal about what they require.

Two seasons ago, for example, the Liverpool forward Sadio Mané asked his team’s captain to approach Coach Jürgen Klopp about switching daily practices during Ramadan to the morning, so that he and other Muslims in the team, like the star striker Mohammed Salah, could participate closer to their pre-dawn meal. Klopp obliged.

“They take it very seriously because they understand how important it is for me and important for them as well, because they need to keep me fit,” said Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian midfielder for another top Premier League club, Arsenal.

Elneny, 31, is one of three Arsenal players who are fasting during Ramadan this season. The team, he said, starts preparing players about two weeks before the first fast, going through “literally everything” players might need to maintain peak performance. The process is repeated the day before Ramadan begins. Other Premier League clubs, and dozens more teams across Europe, now do the same.

Leagues in England and the Netherlands also have introduced rules that explicitly allow for a so-called Ramadan pause during matches, and Germany’s referees are empowered to stop play for the same reason.

But not every country is on board.

France’s soccer federation recently faced criticism after it issued guidelines directing teams and officials not to stop play so players could break their fasts, and for banning players training with federation teams from fasting

The French authorities defended the guidance by saying it was required by federation rules on secularism. But at least one top player left a national team camp in protest.

Others continue to push inclusion, and education. In England, the Premier League has allowed clubs with Muslim players to arrange with referees for brief breaks at sunset since 2021. And the players union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, has produced a 30-page document that is a blend of Ramadan primer and tips on fasting best practices.

“Instead of asking Muslims to adapt to the environment, it is better to understand the other way around,” said Maheta Molango, the union chief executive.

That kind of knowledge was not always widely available. In Porto in 1997, Chippo’s coach, Fernando Santos, patiently listened as the player explained why he was fasting, and then helped dial back his workload. But when Chippo moved to England two years later, he was back to taking matters into his own hands.

There, whenever the game schedule clashed with iftar — the fast-breaking evening meal — Chippo enlisted a team staff member to hover along the edge of the field with dates and a water bottle and bolt toward him at the right time, usually early in the second half.

The first known example of an organized halt in play in the Premier League occurred three years ago, during a match between Crystal Palace and Leicester. The former Crystal Palace doctor Zafar Iqbal said that before the game the medical staffs of both teams approached the referee about the need for a break. At the appointed time, Palace’s goalkeeper lingered over a free kick to allow it to happen.

“When the ball went out of play, the game was paused and the two players ran to the sideline to get a drink and some dates,” Mr. Iqbal said. “Nobody else within the stadium realized as it happened quickly.”

That slick process went largely unnoticed in the moment, revealed only when one of the Muslim players involved thanked the goalkeeper, the league and the teams the next day.

Harry Redknapp, a popular English former manager, said his introduction to Ramadan came in 2000, when he was coaching West Ham. He recalled his shock when the team’s star striker, Frédéric Kanouté, a Frenchman of Malian descent, told him that he would not be eating or drinking during daylight hours for the rest of the month.

“I didn’t have a clue when it first came,” Redknapp said. “I didn’t know what it entailed really.”

Redknapp later moved to Portsmouth, where the team included more Muslim players, including Sulley Muntari, a Ghanaian known for his tireless running. There, the club arranged to have snacks and drinks ready whenever Ramadan matches crossed into the evening.

But even then, Redknapp said, teams did not have experts in nutrition to guide them. “I think they ran off during a game once,” he said of one game, “and we gave them a couple of Mars bars.”

Muntari’s fasting would later make headlines when he moved to Italy, where his manager at Inter Milan, José Mourinho, once pulled him from a game over what he labeled a lack of energy. Muntari “had problems related to Ramadan,” Mourinho told reporters, suggesting that the holy month “has not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match.” The coach has said his remarks were taken out of context.

At Arsenal, Elneny said he takes part in every training drill during Ramadan, altering what he eats in his predawn and evening meals based on the expected intensity of practice sessions.

On match days, he said, if he is picked to start, he will take advantage of a dispensation that he says allows him to make up the day’s fast at a later date. In a league as ferociously competitive as the Premier League, he said he did not want to do anything to make his teammates “doubt” his commitment.

Despite the now common presence of Muslims in Premier League locker rooms, the knowledge that a teammate cannot even indulge in so much as a sip of water during workouts or fast-paced games can be confounding to non-Muslim teammates. “Their faces change,” Elneny said.

Some are curious. Ahmed Elmohamady, an Egyptian defender who played in England for more than a decade, said one of his former teammates, the Irishman Paul McShane, even joined him in fasting for a day one year.

“It was great to see,” Elmohamady said, though he admitted that McShane didn’t last. “He did it once, but he said it would be too difficult to do it for 30 days.”



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