Tuesday 8 September ~
After hauling off Sulley Muntari half an hour into a Serie A game with Bari last month, Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho blamed the Ghanaian midfielder’s religious beliefs. “Ramadan has not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match,” said Mourinho, upset after a poor 1-1 draw for the Italian champions. Mourinho's comments sparked a debate in Italy with Mohamed Nour Dachan, president of the Italian Union of Islamic Communities, telling Sky Italia: "I think Mourinho could do with talking a little less.” The UK’s Daily Star also helpfully picked up on the issue, headlining a story: Muslims: we’ll kill Mourinho.
The issue of footballers dealing with Ramadan, when Muslims must abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours, has been more calmly dealt with in Spain, a country with its own Moorish Islamic past. Sevilla's Freddie Kanouté is among the highest profile players affected. Kanouté, who was 20 when he converted to Islam, the religion of his father, told the press that Ramadan fasting benefited his game rather than hindering it. “Having faith helps my football,” he said. “There is no conflict because people who know about Islam know that fasting empowers and does not weaken the Muslim.” Various dietary and religious experts have weighed into the debate on whether irregular nutritional intake hinders performance or adds mental discipline. Doctor and Imam Moulana Yusuf Daya praised Real Madrid for supporting the club's Islamic players, who include Karim Benzema and Lassana Diarra. “Fasting is an effective means of restoring a player’s longevity,” said Daya. “Ramadan also helps lower cholesterol and systolic blood pressure.”
However, while the physical conditioning argument is interesting, it is the strength of character to stand up for what he believes in, whether or not his employers agree, that marks Kanouté out as a singular footballer. When gambling website 888.com sponsored Seville in 2007, Kanouté refused to wear a shirt promoting the sinful practice of gambling, until a “sizeable” amount was donated to an Islamic charity. The following year he spent €500,000 (£434,000) buying a mosque in Seville that had been due to close, so local Muslims had somewhere to pray. In January he was fined by the Spanish League for celebrating a goal by revealing a T-shirt supporting the Palestinian cause.
It is not that uncommon either for Christian footballers to religiously remove clothing upon scoring or winning a game. Everton’s Steven Pienaar, when he scored a deflected winner for Everton against Spurs last year, showed off a “God Is Great” vest and was promptly booked. Kaka famously unveiled his “I Belong To Jesus” T-shirt after winning the Champions League with Milan in 2007. However even Kaka, a leading light in the Athletes for Christ movement, has not involved himself in as many causes as Kanouté.
Whatever you think about Kanouté's stubborn and/or independent streak, it certainly hasn't harmed his career. Since leaving Spurs he's become one of La Liga's top strikers, scored in two successive victorious UEFA Cup finals and was 2007 African Player of the Year. As it happens, he has had a fairly shocking start to this season – sent off against Valencia as his team lost 2-0 in the season opener. Meanwhile, a 1-1 draw with Benin last weekend means he won't be at next year's World Cup. Dermot Corrigan