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Ramadan fasts inspire late-night football in UAE

By Leone Lakhani, CNN
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Muslim athletes struggle to fast during Ramadan
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The UAE's football league kicks off during Ramadan
  • Officials put matches on late at night and train players more gently
  • Muslim scholars say players can be excused from fasting because it affects livelihood
  • One of Iran's biggest soccer stars has been kicked off his team for refusing to fast

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) -- The familiar sound of beating drums still fills the stadium as the United Arab Emirates begins its new football season, but matches are kicking off a lot later this summer.

With league play starting bang in the middle of Ramadan, officials have scheduled games to start well after ten o'clock at night to accommodate fasting players.

By the time crowds fill Al Nahyan stadium, players on Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda football team have had a chance to pray and break their fast.

According to team captain Haider Aili, players have grown skilled at refraining from food and drink all day in accordance with the Islamic holy month's tradition.

"We're used to that since we were young," he told CNN. "And we're very lucky that we're in a Muslim country so our federation and all of the atmosphere is provided for us."

You have the decrease of the performance. They cannot make a lot of work. They're tired and we must adjust the training.
--Hatem Jemaa, the Al Wahda Club team doctor
RELATED TOPICS
  • Football
  • Sports
  • Ramadan
  • Islam
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Middle East

Hatem Jemaa, the Al Wahda Club team doctor, told CNN that players are physically changed by Ramadan's restraints. The league has to allow for fasting's lingering effects.

"From the second week until two weeks after Ramadan, we see the change," Jemaa said. "You have the decrease of the performance. They cannot make a lot of work. They're tired and we must adjust the training."

That attitude of accommodation isn't prevalent worldwide, as matches and training typically continue through the heat of day. So, many professional Muslim players face a dilemma -- to eat and drink, or not.

One of Iran's biggest soccer stars has been kicked off his team for refusing to fast, according to his team's website.

Steel Azin Football Club's star player Ali Karimi was fired because "respecting God's laws and honoring the sacred laws of Islam are of the utmost importance to Steel Azin," the report said.

Real Madrid midfielder Mesut Ozil also chose to focus on his job at the expense of Ramadan's traditions this year.

"Because of my job I cannot follow [Ramadan] properly," he told CNN. "I do it only the few days I can, only when I have a free day. But other than that it's impossible, because you have to drink and eat a lot stay at peak fitness."

Karimi and Ozil aren't necessarily straying from the rules of their faith, according to a new fatwa, or religious decree.

Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of Islam's leading authorities, has declared that professional athletes can be excused from fasting if their livelihood is at stake. Travelers, pregnant women, the ill and the elderly are already exempted.

With or without a fatwa, star European players like Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari and Sevilla's Freddie Kanoute choose to fast through grueling training schedules.

In America, too, basketball and American football players observe the holy month. A high school football team in Michigan has even moved its pre-season practices to run until 4am, accommodating its many Muslim players.

Fordson High's head coach Fouad Zaban told local TV news station and CNN affiliate WDIV that the unconventional schedule is an experiment aimed to protect the health and safety of student athletes.

For doctors and team managers, health during Ramadan is a cause for concern. Al Wahda's Jemaa says the rapid changes in hydration required by fasting increase the risk of injury.

"In Ramadan, we don't eat and we don't drink, so we must give more hydration and more electrolytes," he said. "Every day, we give the players what they need."

Eliza Ridgeway contributed to this story.

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