The Football Association of Malaysia’s (FAM) decision to play league matches during Ramadan has received criticism from some of the players and clubs. With that in mind, Omar Farouk looks at how other Muslim countries are handling their competitive football seasons during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar…
After the holy month of Ramadan commenced on June 17th 2015, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are now enduring an arduous but fulfilling journey towards charity, humility and an intense engagement with their faith. The annual 30-day fasting period is mandatory for all healthy adult Muslims, requiring each to abstain from food and fluid from sunrise to sunset.
Due to that, the FAM’s fixture scheduling for the M-League during the month of Ramadan has come into question, in which certain sects have called for the postponement of matches to respect the fasting period due to a majority of the players being Muslims. This comes as there is substantial precedent with the previous five M-League seasons ending before Ramadan began. As a result of the football association’s failure to amend the fixture list before Ramadan, critics have begun to berate them.
However, the FAM ought to be allowed some leeway, as it’s not uncommon for sporting events to be held during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. In 2012, the London Summer Olympic Games was held during the month of Ramadan. The FIFA World Cup held in Brazil last year took place from June 12th to July 13th, which overlapped with the fasting period. The 102nd edition of Tour de France will clash with the last three weeks of Ramadan this year, whereas next year’s UEFA European Championship in France will start three days after Ramadan begins.
On top of that, football in a lot of Muslim countries is still taking place as this piece is being written…
Ramadan football in Southeast Asia
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In Indonesia, one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, football is currently on a halt – not because of Ramadan, but due to a feud between the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the All-Indonesia Soccer Association (PSSI) in regards to the prolong dispute over club ownership. However, despite the on-going dispute, the fixtures for 2015 Indonesian Super League season were finalised in March 2014, with the CEO of the Indonesian Super League, Joko Driyono, adamant that the matches would go on during the fasting month with games played later either at 9pm or 10pm. Similarly, during the Ramadan period of the 2013 season, matches were all scheduled at a later time as well.
Across the Causeway, just like the many seasons in the past, competitive football in Singapore has yet to seen fixtures revision due to Ramadan, but the kick-off times are considerably moved to a further time for iftar meals. This year, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has delayed the kick-off times for the League Cup – the S.League is on a two-month break – by half an hour in consideration of the breaking of fast. Around a year ago, Geylang International coach Jorg Steinebrunner disagreed with fasting having an adverse effect on his players as they went on to beat Albirex Niigata 3-1 in the quarter-finals of the League Cup – his team featured six Muslim players, while the opponents comprised of all Japanese players.
Ramadan football in South and Central Asia
By the time this year’s Ramadan began, some of the football leagues in South and Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have concluded. It is important to note these countries ended their football seasons early not because of the fasting period, but rather it would be extremely unwise to organise any sort of sporting activities during this time of the year, when the unbearable and deadly heat wave swept both regions. However, there are a few exceptions.
Over in Bangladesh, the Nitol Tata Bangladesh Premier League is still on-going, with matches being played either at 4pm or 9pm. Despite the previous 2012/13 B-League season ending as early as May, there has been no official statement from the Bangladesh Football Association in regards to any fixtures revision and the welfare of Muslim footballers in Bangladesh during Ramadan. For the past few seasons in Uzbekistan, the league and cup games have usually been scheduled from March to November. Games are still played during the Ramadan period with match times set as late as 11pm.
Ramadan football in the Middle East and Africa
Despite the obvious risks players in the Middle East and African regions face, football fixtures during the month of Ramadan are not unusual in these regions. National teams are involved in World Cup qualifiers, while club sides participate in regional tournaments such as the preliminary rounds of the African Nation Championship, the CAF Champions League and the CAF Confederation Cup with kick-off times being under the discretion of the host teams.
The Egyptian Premier League season usually starts in September and ends in August the following year. The league has not seen any postponement due to Ramadan, but it was recently approved that for the remainder of the season, the league games during the holy period would be pushed forward by half an hour, kicking-off at 10pm.
Similarly, in the predominantly Muslim nation of Sudan, its Premier League has yet to be concluded. The league, which started in January and is scheduled to finish at the end of July, has not seen any fixture postponement due to Ramadan. Instead, fixtures are being played in the evening or at night.
The situation in Iraq is somewhat comparable with Egypt, but the circumstance is rather extreme. The 2014/15 Iraqi Premier League is currently on-going and being played in the afternoon heat, in which the temperature can soar up to 45ºC most days. Under other conditions, the Iraqi league would’ve ended weeks ago, but given the lack of floodlight in stadiums for night games, it seems even more agonising for players that are observing the fasting period.
Other Muslim countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have ended their league and cup seasons in April or May (usually for the same reason as most South and Central Asian countries), but West African football giants Nigeria are still going through their 10-month long Glo Premier League with games running till mid-November. Muslim footballers will have to go through playing matches that are scheduled for kick-off at 4pm, where temperatures can spike up to 47ºC. The League Management Company, which organises the NPL, has no statutory regulation regarding religious affiliation or practices and issues like Ramadan, as those are exclusive decisions of the players and their clubs.
Senegal’s 26-week Ligue 1, which started last December, is well into their last week of fixtures, with games being played mostly in the afternoon. Sub-Saharan African neighbours Kenya’s Tusker Premier League is still going ahead with the league season, which is being played either at 7pm and 8pm. The Football Kenya Federation (FKF), however, has suspended four tiers of the league season till the end of Ramadan.
It seems that every action that the FAM undertakes appears to end up in heavy criticism. However, with reference to the primarily Muslim footballing nations mentioned above, it’s unfair to exaggerate the plight of the FAM. After all, fixtures during the fasting month have been conveniently planned at considerate kick off times after iftar meals. In a recent interview with Bernama, Secretary General Dato’ Hamidin Haji Mohd Amin claimed that the decision to proceed with the Super League and Premier League fixtures gained approval from the FAM’s executive committee as early as February 2015, and the circular was sent out to all competing teams on the matter. Additionally, it’s fortunate that it is still viable to organise matches during Ramadan, with satisfactory infrastructure i.e. floodlights available in majority football stadiums across Malaysia together with cooler temperatures at night.
Ramadan football is without a doubt a clash of duty, but both are obligations to be fulfilled by an individual. That said, Ramadan challenges are not limited to merely abstaining from food, fluid and sinful behaviours but also a platform to showcase one’s desire and mental toughness to face physical and spiritual challenges. Instead of being seen as a burden, Ramadan football should be seen as an opportunity to intelligently manage aspects of Muslim footballers during the holy period. This rests on the shoulders of not only the national body, but as well as the club sides who must meticulously predict, plan and prepare players for any match regardless of the circumstances. The clubs should equip themselves with knowledge of managing training frequency, intensity, hydration levels, food intake and sleep. These are imperative aspects of monitoring the welfare of players, therefore an investment into it will provide necessary assistance especially during the Ramadan period.
Hopefully, from next season onward, there will be fewer controversies on the fixtures leading up to Ramadan, hence more excitement and optimism surrounding our local football. Ramadan Kareem and Eid ul-Fitr to all Muslims.
(Main Picture: asiana.my)