x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A challenge to keep the faith

Muslim athletes the world over must juggle their religious beliefs with the demands of playing sport at the top level. Alam Khan spoke to Manchester City captain Kolo Toure about the obstacles he faced during the holy month.

Kolo Toure, left, pictured for the Ivory Coast against Burkina Faso on September 5, has chosen not to fast on match days during his seven years in English football.
Kolo Toure, left, pictured for the Ivory Coast against Burkina Faso on September 5, has chosen not to fast on match days during his seven years in English football.

Jose Mourinho has never been afraid to court controversy. But he sailed into potentially dangerous territory when Ramadan became the topic of a post-match press conference. The Inter Milan manager substituted the midfielder Sulley Muntari in the first game of the Serie A season against Bari after just half an hour, and said the player's decision to fast had affected his ability to perform at his peak.

After criticism from Muslim leaders, Mourinho said his words had been twisted and he accepts Muntari's commitment to his faith. With the end of the holy month last Saturday, the case highlights why some footballers keep tight-lipped about whether they observe the fast or not, particularly on match days. To an outsider, not eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset is bound to affect the body and the mind. But Kolo Toure, the Manchester City captain, sought advice from an Imam on the issue and has chosen not to fast on match days during his seven years in English football, catching them up later as permitted to do so.

Despite fasting during his trial for Arsenal back in 2002, he said: "It's difficult. I do everything I can to be a good Muslim, but at a certain point if I feel that I can't do something, I don't do it. It doesn't affect me in training, but the day of the games, I don't make the fast. I've been doing the same thing with Arsenal in the past too. We are lucky - we can catch them up. "I can't judge other people and what they do. Everyone has his own level of spirit. Some people, like [Sevilla striker Frederic] Kanoute, are very high."

Toure became a practising Muslim at 13 through a childhood friend and his father's friend who was an Imam. As a role model, he would consider being an Imam himself in later life. He says: "Why not? We will see where life takes me." His former Arsenal teammate Ashley Cole once said his strangest moment in football was "Kolo praying in the dressing room on his prayer mat". Toure remembers his fellow players as being very respectful of his beliefs. "Nobody said anything; everyone has a right to do what they want to do," he added.

"We used to go to the mosque, Abou Diaby, Bacary Sagna, Armand Traore [former Arsenal teammates] and myself. Every Friday, we have a mosque five minutes from the Arsenal training ground and we would go to read Jummah prayers. We were still part of the team, but we also do our duties. "It means everything being a Muslim; it's my life. If I stopped playing football, it doesn't matter. The day I stop praying is the day I will die. It gives me calmness and confidence, I am not scared of anything."

Praying and donating money at a mosque in Stretford, near the Old Trafford home of City's rivals United, confirms that latter comment, especially after the derby defeat on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr. Maybe he can get the mosque's patrons to switch allegiances. "That will be good," he laughs. "They are surprised to see me, but the star and the most important person is God. I focus on my prayer and the people are respectful."

Respect and understanding is something Toure and other Muslim sporting figures will need, particularly when it comes to maintaining their faith. It will not be just footballers who will have dilemmas over Ramadan in the future as Professor Ron Maughan, a sports nutrition expert at Loughborough University, revealed: "The Olympics in 2012 will fall during Ramadan so that will be a challenge for athletes taking part in London.

"For example, a swimmer who has a heat in the morning and then one at night. If you look at the sporting calendar a lot of things can fall in Ramadan and it is always down to the individual. Some can cope, some cannot." Research has shown that is not the case. Professor Maughan says players' energy intake tends not to drop during the daylight hours and with rest, relaxation and good preparation, fasting should not be a factor in performance.

Comments like that from Mourinho only prove damaging for players who already face a difficult predicament, he claims. "If Muntari had been injured in the first 20 minutes would Mourinho have blamed the fast or even mentioned it?," said Professor Maughan, who is an advisor to Fifa's medical group F-MARC and chairman of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) nutrition advisory group. "You have to respect Mourinho, he has a fantastic track record, but maybe Muntari was just having a bad day. I know some players don't tell their teammates they are fasting. It's a personal thing, but when they do, it brings it into the mind of managers and gives them a chance to make excuses and provide a reason to take them off in a game.

"Some players fast and it inspires them to play even better. If you take away their faith then you take away something from their performance." Kanoute does not hide the fact he observed the fast on match days and said: "There is no conflict because people who know about Islam, they know that fasting empowers and does not weaken the Muslim." The Real Madrid trio of Lassana Diarra, Mahamadou Diarra and Karim Benzema were other high-profile Muslims in La Liga who followed suit, undertaking a special programme to keep them hydrated and cope in the hot conditions.

akhan@thenational.ae