Ramadan is coming to a close, most likely on Thursday night. Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sundown for 30 days. This might come as a surprise to some folks, but the world doesn’t stop during this time. That means going without food and water all day. It means still studying for finals for college students, serving meat and rice out of a halal food truck for cart workers, and playing against competitors at the highest levels for professional athletes.
The latter has been one of the more entertaining subplots of Ramadan in recent years. This year, University of Connecticut basketball star Adama Sanogo and two of his teammates fasted all the way through to an NCAA March Madness championship, prompting wide coverage. (His trainers called him at 4:30 a.m. to remind him to eat a leftover Chipotle bowl.) There was the famous Kyrie Irving bananas incident not long ago. But the real action has been in soccer.
At the 35th minute of an English Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Leicester City a couple years ago, a quietly profound scene unfolded: Just after sunset, Palace’s goalkeeper, Vicente Guaita, held onto the ball and stopped play. Players on both teams, Leicester’s Wesley Fofana and Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate, scurried to their team benches to eat dates and gulp water and energy gels. Then they returned to the game without a word.
The stoppage is widely recognized as the first sanctioned break in a Premier League match for players observing Ramadan. Prior to that match, both teams and the referee agreed to stop play at sunset, when Muslims break fast and have their first bit of sustenance since sunrise.
The EPL, the most-watched sports league in the world, made an even bigger change this year: Refereeing bodies introduced specific Ramadan guidelines for players to break their fasts mid-game. Before matches during Ramadan that coincided with sunset, referees will work with the clubs to identify any fasting players, and then find a natural pause after sunset (during a goal-kick, free-kick or throw-in) to blow the whistle and allow a few minutes for players to eat.
Many of the league’s top players, like Mohamed Salah of Liverpool, Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City, and Ngolo Kante of Chelsea have said that they plan to fast on match days during Ramadan. Ramadan in previous years had fallen in the off-season, during the summer. But the holy month begins approximately 10 days earlier each year because Islam follows a lunar calendar, which now coincides more with the Premier League’s winter schedule.
The change is major. But in the past, players had to get more creative. During a World Cup friendly against Portugal in 2018, Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassan collapsed to the ground and faked an injury right at sunset. While the team’s medical trainers examined him, his teammates rushed to the bench for dates and water. Just six minutes after, an energized Tunisia side scored an equalizer and held Cristiano Ronaldo and his team to a draw. He did it again the next game. Asked whether he was faking it, Hassan said in a now-deleted tweet, “J’avais mal frero,” French for “I was hurt, bro.” He appended laugh-crying emojis.
Fans and reporters have sometimes criticized players who would play while fasting. In 2019, Ajax’s two Moroccan players, Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui, both quickly consumed energy gels at the 24th minute without the game pausing, but some still openly speculated that fasting and competing was “impossible” and would come at the club’s expense. A defiant Mazraoui told the press, “It’s my own choice, and people have to accept it. I’m Muslim.”
Crystal Palace’s head of sports medicine, Zafar Iqbal, warned that criticisms like that put pressure on Muslims inside the locker room. “I’ve heard of some players being concerned they may not have the support of their manager or the medical/science team, so they’ve hidden the fact they are fasting because they’ve been worried about being judged or not picked,” he told the Mirror.
Even Liverpool’s Salah, maybe the most visibly Muslim athlete in the world, drew ire from fans for fasting, particularly after Egypt came away from the 2018 World Cup without winning a single match. That year, his club manager, Jürgen Klopp, famously defended him to the press, saying, “In this life, there are many things more important than football.”
For Muslims, there are plenty of reasons that can exempt you from fasting, including worry about whether fasting will harm you, but it’s not clear that being a soccer star qualifies. Many make those decisions on their own. In 2018, Ramadan coincided with the Champions League final, and Salah’s physiotherapist told the press that Salah would not fast for the game. But generally, Salah continued to fast on match days, and in 2019, he scored a crucial penalty in the UEFA Champions League final against Tottenham. During the 38th minute, as the sun set, he could be seen sipping water while an opposing player was being checked for injury.
But the last few years have seen a clear shift. Fasting players are now being cheered on in some cases, too. Manchester City’s star winger, Riyad Mahrez, dominated a second-leg Champions League match in 2021, scoring the two needed goals to overtake tournament favorites Kylian Mbappe and Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain. He did it while fasting, and after that match, he was memed “Ramadan Mahrez.” Recently, Real Madrid’s star striker, Karim Benzema, also defied judgement when he clinched a hat trick without consuming food or water since dawn.
Now, Premier League pauses for Ramadan have become part of the game. A match between Everton and Tottenham was paused at the 26th minute so that Everton players Amadou Onana, Abdoulaye Doucoure, and Idrissa Gueye could break their fasts with traditional dates. Bournemouth’s Hamed Traore and Dango Ouattara did the same in a match against Brighton. When iconic Premier League announcer Martin Tyler narrated it in his signature voice, “We’ll have a break now for those players who are observing Ramadan to break their fast,” it was a small but significant moment. I imagined fans watching from the stands and at home breaking their fasts, too, the quiet ritual becoming part of the game they love—even if, in an American time zone, that meant I was still five hours away from breaking my fast. You smile through the pain.
Ramadan is only four weeks long, which isn’t hugely consequential to the Premier League’s 38-week schedule, especially after you exclude afternoon and evening games that don’t overlap with sunset. But I do appreciate that with more eyes on Muslim players, non-Muslims can finally enjoy the little things that come with Ramadan in the beautiful game, like when Salah was handed water by an aide while he was fasting and had to pretend it didn’t happen. Now soccer fans can watch him do it and totally be in on the joke.