April marked the beginning of Ramadan for Muslims worldwide. They observe a month of fasting, increased prayer, reflection and giving to charity with the hope that these qualities will become habitual throughout the rest of the year. During daylight hours they abstain from drinking and eating – and this poses a significant challenge for Muslim players in the sporting world.
Earlier this month, in the match between Burnley and Everton, the referee paused the game to allow for Toffees’ midfielder Abdullah Doukuri to break his fast. Last season, for the first time in English football, play was stopped between Leicester City and Crystal Palace to allow Foxes defender Wesley Fofana to have a drink to break his fast during the game.
Liverpool have changed their training times to help their Muslim players during Ramadan.
While Premier League rules say that captains can request a drinks break after sunset for players to break their fast – Liverpool have taken steps further.
— VERSUS (@vsrsus) April 28, 2022
This year, during the month of Ramadan, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) organised iftar events at West Ham, Crystal Palace and Bradford City, bringing the Muslim community together in both faith and sport.
“We’ve been bringing together football clubs and club community organisations for Iftar events and awareness raising since 2013 and this has now led to greater understanding and more activities across the game”, Riz Rehman, the Player Inclusion Executive at the PFA, said.
“Club, Academy and Foundation wide joint activities have the greatest impact and raise the most awareness internally, externally and across local communities during Ramadan. Individual clubs have the potential to make meaningful change in society and across the wider football community, and we want even more clubs to be part of this change and lead the way.”
The PFA has developed an educational resource and workshop for clubs that aims to improve the inclusion of and working conditions for Muslim players during Ramadan and throughout the year. The workshop is also delivered every year on the PFA UEFA B Coaching License courses, with former high-profile players such as Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole having previously attended a workshop.
“Football has Muslim players across all levels of the elite game, and it is paramount that future coaching staff and multi-dimensional teams understand the needs of their players and are confident in providing the highest level of wrap-around support and in turn improving welfare and performance.”
Last month also marked the one-year anniversary of PFA’s launch of the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS), a similar initiative centred around enhancing the experience of South Asian footballers at all levels of the professional game by creating a network of support that allows them to thrive.
“We have Muslim players across all phases on the AIMS programme who are fasting this year, some for the first time and some who are observing whilst living with host families. I’ve been regularly checking in with players and clubs and it’s been great to see younger players reaching out to their peers to seek advice and guidance on how to manage their training and games programme during Ramadan – this is why AIMS was set up, connecting and providing that extra support mechanism.”
“Inclusivity, acceptance and celebration of Muslim faith and practices should not be confined to Ramadan.”
Across the sporting landscape we have seen iftar events take place. History was made last week at Lords Cricket Ground when the English Cricket Board (ECB) held its first ever iftar event with talks on culture and religion. These events are indicative of the change that is taking place in society, but in the same breath we must also question why it has taken us so long to get here. If in 2022 we are celebrating history being made, then we need to turn our attention to the structures that kept us out for so long.
A recent study by the University of Birmingham found that one in four Britons hold negative views about Muslims and Islam and they are the “least-liked” group in the UK. There is no doubt that Islamophobic representations of British Muslim identity in the mainstream press has contributed to this prejudice.
Inclusivity, acceptance and celebration of Muslim faith and practices should not be confined to Ramadan. In January, Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba posted a picture of him offering prayer at Mecca. A flood of negative and Islamophobic comments forced Pogba to delete his post. We should not have to censor parts of our identity for us to live safely. To exist as a whole is a privilege.
As we come to the end of Ramadan, it is important that as a society we reflect on how we can carve out safe spaces for Muslim players to exist, a space where they do not have to be selective about their identities. It is not enough to offer a helping hand during this month but then turn away when players face Islamophobic attacks.
Investing in inclusive cultures is a choice and Ramadan has reminded us all of the strength in the unity of faith, togetherness and community. It is now down to us to follow suit.