Ramadan Poses Test to Muslim Players at World Cup

June 27, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO — Down the quiet, tree-lined Rua Gonzaga Bastos, less than half a mile from Estádio do Maracanã, the custodian of this city’s only mosque was preparing for the busiest time of the year.

Mohamed Zeinhom Abdien, the custodian, was sitting at a desk opposite messy piles of boxes containing thousands of leaflets about Islam written in Portuguese, English and Arabic.

The observance of Ramadan, one of Islam’s five pillars, is a religious obligation in which Muslims fast and forgo any liquids from dawn until dusk over the course of a month. The month begins Saturday night, and Abdien’s usually quiet mosque has been inundated with newcomers.

“Normally we have 100, maybe 150 people here every Friday to pray, after the imam gives the call to prayer in Portuguese,” said Abdien, an Egyptian-born tour guide who moved to Rio 21 years ago.

“But the World Cup,” he said, spreading his arms at the dozens of boxes, “it means there have been many Algerian fans, TV presenters, even a few players.”

This World Cup in Brazil has drawn thousands of Muslim fans — from Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria and beyond — and Ramadan, which is pegged to a lunar calendar and begins a bit earlier in the Gregorian calendar each year, is due to start just as the second round opens.

The month, however, should be more complicated for the dozens of Muslim players still in the tournament, including the French striker Karim Benzema and Germany’s Mesut Özil. With the humidity and high temperatures in Brazil, especially along the northern coast and in the Amazon, an inability to stay hydrated would appear to put those players, and the teams featuring Muslims, like Algeria, at a disadvantage in the knockout stage.

Still, “we know very little,” said Ron Maughan, a professor of sports nutrition at Loughborough University in England.

Maughan led a working group that examined the effects of fasting on athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, the last time Ramadan coincided with a major sporting event. He found that fasting had an effect on athletes competing in the events requiring the greatest strain, like the marathon, but that the impact was relatively small over all.

The Swiss team has several Muslim players, including Xherdan Shaqiri, who scored a hat trick in his team’s 3-0 win over Honduras, which earned it a place in the knockout stage. A team spokesman said that it had made no special provision for Ramadan and that none of its players would fast until after the tournament.

The French team acknowledged that Ramadan had caused a debate among its players.