The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which falls each year on different dates of the Western calendar, began on Aug. 21, just in time for another event in Europe with near religious significance: the kickoff of soccer season. But the timing has sparked controversy in Italy, where in the last four days both a prominent coach and a team owner in the top Serie A league have linked the rigors of Ramadan's sunrise-to-sunset fasting to Muslim players' poor performance on the pitch.
Just 30 minutes into his team's disappointing 1-1 tie Sunday with Bari, Inter Milan's Portuguese-born coach Jose Mourinho pulled midfielder Sulley Muntari, a practicing Muslim, out of his home debut. "He was clearly struggling," Mourinho said of the 25-year-old Ghanian player during the post-game press conference. "It's the month of Ramadan and that's what affected his performance, which is why I took him out."
A top Muslim leader in Italy, Mohamed Nour Dachan, lashed out at the coach of the defending Serie A champions. "I think Mourinho should talk a little bit less," Dachan, president of the Italian Union of Islamic Organizations, told Sky Italia television. "We know from sports medicine that the mental stability of an athlete lets him give so much more on the field, and a player observant in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam definitely has a very tranquil psychology."
On Tuesday evening, the outspoken owner of the Rome-based Lazio club added to the polemics, saying he makes a point of avoiding the "problem" of Ramadan. "I respect religious freedom and the ways that it is expressed," Claudio Lotito told reporters after a meeting of Serie A officials in Milan. "But I try to prevent things that can slow down training and the playing of matches. I've never bought players that have this problem."
Italy's sports pages duly took note of other Muslim players who observe Ramadan with varying degrees of strictness, including Siena's Abdel Kader Ghezzal, an Algerian who scored a goal against AC Milan on Saturday. Though a practicing Muslim, Ghezzal says he does not fast on training and game days during Ramadan. Inter's Muntari is more observant, though he reportedly ate pasta at lunch on Sunday, while refusing water before the match. Most imams say there are just a few exemptions from the daytime fast, including pregnant women, the sick and the elderly. Though the Koran doesn't cite any excuses based on profession, as in all religions there are Muslims who are more and less observant of the letter of the law, with the requirements of their jobs sometimes playing a role.
Stefano Tirelli, the Milan-based personal trainer for Muntari and several other top soccer stars from Africa and the Middle East, says that depending on the playing conditions and the individuals, lack of food and water can limit performance. He recalls his experience working for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar national teams, which featured less robust players in 100 degrees F (40 degrees C) heat, saying that their speed and stamina were indeed affected by the Ramadan fast. But Tirelli, a professor of Integrated Sports Technique at Milan's Catholic University, warns against reducing athletic performance to a series of statistical charts. "It's right that we respect the values of science," he says. ""But mental strength, determination and, yes, religious force, for one month's time, can easily overcome the deficit in proper nutrition."
Italian journalist Massimo Donaddio noted in the daily Il Sore 24 Ore how Saudi Arabia's coach at the recent World Athletics Championships in Berlin had declared that his athletes would strictly follow the Ramadan fast during the competition. The Saudis won exactly zero medals, writes Donaddio, but, then, so did the Italians.