The day after the start of the holy month of Ramadan, during which many practising Muslims fast, the Algerian football team faced another important kick-off: their last-16 showdown against Germany at the World Cup.
Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is meant to be a time of increased spiritual reflection and prayer. Muslims are obligated to give up all food and liquids from dawn until dusk, rising early to eat before the start of the day, and then breaking the fast after sunset. This often means changing the body’s schedule.
Will Algeria's players refrain from eating and drinking before the match despite the Brazilian heat and the required physical exertion? The question is stirring up huge controversy in Algeria.
On Saturday, Algerian sports daily “Le Buteur” reported that “Coach [Vahid] Halilhodzic advised his players to refrain from fasting the day of the match, while maintaining that they had the freedom to decide for themselves.”
Such was the ensuing outcry that the Algerian football association (Fédération algérienne de football, or FAF) decided to respond directly in a statement released Sunday: “The Algerian football association vigorously refutes this allegation. At no point did the coach advise the players to refrain from fasting during the World Cup.”
A question of free will?
The charged exchange demonstrated a long-reigning hostility between "Le Buteur" and the national team’s current coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, a former footballer hailing from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
FAF rose to the coach’s defence, stating that “Vahid Halilhodzic is very respectful of the Muslim religion. During his three years at the head of the nation team, there has never been a problem raised related to religion, political affiliation or anything concerning free will of each person.”
The question of free will is at the heart of this debate, says Nabil Djellit, a journalist for "Francefootball.fr" and a specialist in North African football.
“The Federation is putting strong emphasis on the idea that it’s a question of personal choice for the players. But in a country where there is no separation between religion and politics, it remains a sensitive subject. The players are being scrutinized and judged by the public. The public wants to know what the players decide and the public also wants the players to justify their decision to fast or not.”
Incidentally, the coach, like the players, has always refused to respond to questions on the subject during team press conferences. “I’m here to speak about football and not politics or religion,” Halilhodzic told journalists ahead of the crucial clash with Germany.
Journalist Nabil Djellit added extra analysis.
“We know that the players got together and discussed the matter. Some of them are fasting, others won’t— at least not on game day, but they aren’t going to speak about it publicly. And the coach definitely doesn’t want to get mixed up in this controversy.”
No fasting for Germany's Özil
While this controversy is taking over a lot of headlines, it is worth noting that most of the Algerian footballers play for European clubs. They are used to juggling their football careers and their religious obligations.
Moreover, Ramadan has just started, which means that players who do choose to fast are likely to cope well -- at least for the time being. Most potential negative effects of fasting, like fatigue, are worsened by the accumulation of not eating and drinking over an extended period.
But that's one chance Algeria's opponent Mesut Özil, who plays midfield for Germany, will not be taking. "I’m not going to do Ramadan,” he warned ahead of Monday's game. “It’s impossible for me to do it this year.”
Date created : 2014-06-30