CAIRO – Well-traveled and much experienced as a soccer coach, Hector Cuper is facing a new obstacle when it comes to preparing Egypt for this year’s World Cup.
The tournament in Russia starts on the final day of Ramadan, the holy month that requires Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Egypt is scheduled to play its opening match a day later, on June 15, against Uruguay.
That means much of Egypt’s preparations for the World Cup — the country’s first in 28 years — will be done while the all-Muslim team is supposed to be fasting during daylight hours.
“If I deal with that pragmatically, I should turn the day upside down. Maybe Egyptian players are accustomed to doing this, but I as a Western person am not,” Cuper said late Tuesday on a TV talk show. “How can I train them at night around 11 or 12 after iftar (the meal Muslims eat at sunset to break their fast)? And how can I train them during the day without water and when they had nothing to eat?
“We are working on this and seeking to find the best way to overcome fasting fatigue and prevent it from hurting the players.”
Egypt, a record seven-time African champion, will also face host Russia and Saudi Arabia in Group A at the World Cup. Cuper, an Argentine who has coached extensively around his native country and in Europe, took over as national team coach in 2015.
There has been widespread speculation on whether soccer authorities in Egypt will request a fatwa, or a religious edict, from the country’s top theologian exempting the squad from fasting during the crucial month of preparation before the tournament begins.
In comments published Wednesday, Cuper said it would be up to the individual players to decide.
“Players of the national squad are absolutely free to fast and we cannot interfere in this because of my full respect for all faiths,” Cuper said, adding nutrition experts have been retained to advise the players on how to cope with fasting and sleeping during Ramadan.
In Russia, the Egyptian team will be based in Chechnya. Team officials have said they are happy to be in Grozny because it is a Muslim city where the players would be comfortable.
Devout Muslims refrain from food, water and sex while the sun is out during Ramadan. The lunar month is in May and June this year, with the long days making the fast a grueling 15- or 16-hour test of stamina. During Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at iftar, the traditionally large meal after sunset. Just before dawn, they eat another meal, sohour.
“I endure a great deal of hardship when I am fasting, but I prefer to honor my religious duty as long as I am able to cope,’ said Egypt defender Saad Sameer, who plays for Cairo club Al-Ahly. “I will fast the month of Ramadan, regardless of what the team decides.”
Another Egypt player, Zamalek midfielder Tareq Hamed, said he would abide by any decision reached by the team’s management on whether to fast.
“I hope we do well in the World Cup and not be distracted by issues like fasting,” said Hamed, adding he and many other players have in the past played matches while fasting.
Edicts exempting soccer players from fasting are not without precedence.
A 2008 edict by Egypt’s mufti, the country’s top theologian, exempted players from fasting during match days, arguing that if playing is what they do for a living then they should break their fast, provided that they compensate for those days after the end of Ramadan. Training, he said, did not provide grounds for breaking the fast.
The issue of Ramadan has showcased the religious dimension of sports, especially soccer, in Egypt, a majority Muslim country of about 100 million people, of whom about 10 million are Christians.
Egyptian match commentators routinely pray to God to come to the aid of the national team and they offer a prayer of thanks when they score. Beside the “Pharaohs,” the Egyptian national team has another nickname: “The Squad of al-Sajedeen,” or the team that kneels down and offers prayers, which they do after scoring.
It is also traditional for the team to collectively read the opening verse of the Quran before kickoff.