x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Do not expect high intensity: Pro League's summer blues

Playing football after a day of fasting in temperatures peaking at 43°C is bound to take its toll, Ahmed Rizvi reports.

Fernando Baiano, centre, the Al  Wahda striker, struggles in the extreme temperatures during the holy month of Ramadan. Pro League officials took the decision to push back kick-off times to 10pm in order to help the players better cope with the conditions.
Fernando Baiano, centre, the Al Wahda striker, struggles in the extreme temperatures during the holy month of Ramadan. Pro League officials took the decision to push back kick-off times to 10pm in order to help the players better cope with the conditions.

Replays showed Yasir Matar standing alone near the centre circle. The right-back seemed to sway a bit and he then sat down heavily. A moment later he was flat on his back as the Al Jazira medical crew raced out to him. Matar had been overcome by some of the most difficult circumstances in the history of the Pro League - exerting himself in a match in extraordinary heat after a day spent fasting. "It was hot and he went down," said Dr Mark Waller, the Jazira medical director. "During the break he took plenty of fluids and was able to play the rest of the game. So he was fine."

According to weather.com, the temperature in Abu Dhabi when Matar collapsed, at about 10.30pm on Friday, was 34°C but "felt like" 45°C because of high humidity. Anyone familiar with the region knows that hot August nights with high humidity are common. What is uncommon, perhaps unprecedented, is the Pro League playing matches in August during the holy month of Ramadan. At least one coach has suggested it should not happen again.

"I am a foreigner, but I fasted for 12 days when I was working in Egypt," said Manuel Cajuda, the Portuguese coach of the Sharjah club. "I know how difficult fasting is. To play football after a day of fasting is even more difficult. "You lose more water, more minerals, without enough replacements. You do not sleep well because you are training and playing late at night. So I think it is not a good idea to play in Ramadan."

Officials of the league said a surfeit of international events this season forced their hand. They had to begin Pro League play in August, during Ramadan, to finish the season by May. "We tried our best to avoid starting this early, but unfortunately the requirements of the players for the national teams have imposed this on us," said Carlo Nohra, chief executive of the Football League, citing the Asian Games and Gulf Cup, scheduled for November; the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December and the month-long Asian Cup in January.

"So, sadly, while we would have all liked to prevent this situation from arising, it has been really impossible." So far, the players have not publicly questioned the schedule. "Yes, it is difficult for the players," said Adel Abdullah, the Al Shabab captain, "but it is the same for all players." Haider Ali, the Al Wahda captain and a veteran of 14 seasons, said he cannot recall playing when it was both August and Ramadan. He said conditions were difficult but not unexpected.

"As Muslims, we are well-adapted to fast and play after we break the fast," he said. "It doesn't really matter if it was a summer month. The humidity and the heat is another matter, and it is hard even if it wasn't a fasting month. It's nothing new for us, and there are no records to suggest any harm is done to the health of the players." Heat and high humidity, as well as a day of fasting, will likely come together as the Pro League prepares for its second round of fixtures tonight, tomorrow and Friday.

Highs in Abu Dhabi are forecast at 42, 42 and 43°C; Dubai will be 38, 41and 41°C. Even the 10pm kick-offs scheduled by the league this week and last are unlikely to present a pleasant environment, especially for players who have gone without food and water in a league that is overwhelming Muslim. Waller said eating comes even before rehydrating. "As soon as the call to prayer sounds, [the players] go for their prayers and then we go about getting the food in them first off, then the fluids," he said. "Without getting too technical, it will be a mixture of cranberry juice and apple juice, while the food will be high in carbohydrates."

Coaches around the league seem to agree that onlookers cannot expect the same sort of high-intensity exertion that the players might otherwise be capable of. "The heat and humidity is clearly making it difficult for the players," said Lutfi Benzarti, the Tunisian coach of Baniyas, after a 1-0 victory over Al Shabab last week. "And then they are also fasting. So we cannot expect 100 per cent from the players in this situation."

Nohra said the league still presented an attractive product. "I think it was an explosive start to the season," he said. "Hopefully, next year we will go back to normal operations and start a little later in the year. It may still be hot and humid, but not this hot and humid." arizvi@thenational.ae Additional reporting by Gary Meenaghan and Amith Passela