Crystal Palace’s head of sports medicine Dr Zaf Iqbal has praised the improved awareness and actions taken by the Premier League, its clubs and referees to assist players who are observing Ramadan this year.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and results in Muslims worldwide partaking in a sustained period of fasting, where they do not eat or drink during daylight hours. Extra prayers also occur in a month of spiritual reflection.
The dates of Ramadan change annually and are dependent on the first sighting of the new moon. It will happen between April 2 and May 1 this year, having been April 13 to May 12 in 2021.
While Ramadan has taken place outside of the English football season in the past, it is predicted over the coming years to regularly be observed during the final months of the domestic campaign and this year referees will again allow a pause in evening matches – if requested – for players to break their fast.
“There certainly has been a lot more awareness,” Dr Iqbal, who has worked in the Premier League since 2007, told the PA news agency
“It’s been excellent to see that managers, coaches and staff are more understanding of others’ beliefs and are accommodating. It can only lead to better understanding, appreciation and harmony within a team.”
Last season, Dr Iqbal was responsible for what is believed to be the first Premier League game paused mid-match so players could break their fast for Ramadan.
When Leicester hosted Crystal Palace on April 26, referee Graham Scott allowed a brief halting of procedures so Wesley Fofana and Cheikhou Kouyate could have Iftar, the evening meal that sees Muslims end their daily fast at sunset.
Further education has occurred since and the Premier League has given its backing to allow matches to be paused if requested pre-game, while the Professional Game Match Officials Board recently sent staff on a workshop to enhance their understanding of Ramadan.
Dr Iqbal has arranged a number of conferences to improve awareness of Ramadan in sport and added: “It was nice (last season). Before the game myself and the Leicester doctor, Dr Bryan English, were discussing emergency routines and discussed that we had players fasting.
“We wondered if it would be sensible to ask the referee, Graham Scott, if at an opportune time at sunset whether we could have a break to allow those fasting to have a drink and some food to open their fast.
“Graham was fine with it as were the managers (Brendan Rodgers and Roy Hodgson). I spoke with the Premier League medical advisor Doctor Mark Gillett and he also didn’t see an issue as we have drinks breaks when it’s very hot.
“We kept it low-key so that people wouldn’t realise it happened and so couldn’t be accused of disrupting the flow of the game. After the game Wesley tweeted about it and it went global on social media.
“Now the PGMOL and Premier League have allowed a break if requested to quickly open fast in any evening game where the fast needs to be opened.”
Earlier this month, Everton’s Abdoulaye Doucoure was able to break his fast following a pause of his side’s match at Burnley and Palace’s long-serving doctor is pleased the option is there but does not believe fixtures should be rearranged during the month of Ramadan.
“It’s actually the games during the middle of the day that are the hardest because if a player is fasting then they have to wait till sunset later in the day before they can eat or drink,” Dr Iqbal explained.
“I don’t think any Muslim player would expect the UK to change schedules or fixtures to accommodate as they do in some Muslim countries. I think Muslim players are just grateful that they can fast without hiding it and their needs are being accommodated.”
Dr Iqbal, who is also observing Ramadan, continues to be impressed by the consistency of players fasting and highlighted the importance of footballers not hiding their faith with modifications to training sometimes required during this period.
“Again (strong performances) show the power of belief and motivation which is key in performance,” he added.
“If you speak to athletes across sports, there appears a consistent message that fasting helps them mentally and spiritually which helps them overcome any negative effects they feel from fasting and not having food and drink.
“For footballers who are fasting while training and playing games, the main issues are hydration, replacing glycogen, replacing protein for muscle regeneration and healing, sleep and recovery.
“As a result there has to be a good understanding between the medical, sports science and coaching staff to help support the player and not have the player hiding the fact they are fasting, which would make it more difficult for the player.”