Faith and football during Ramadan

DAKAR - After 11 hours without food or water in the sapping 30C heat of the African sun, hard exercise is not everyone's idea of fun.

DAKAR - After 11 hours without food or water in the sapping 30C heat of the African sun, hard exercise is not everyone's idea of fun.

For young Senegalese footballers, however, the Ramadan fast is no excuse for missing a match, even as many fellow Muslims are left so weakened by hunger and thirst that they doze in what shade there is, or retreat indoors to sleep.

The devoted squad of ASC Karack, a team of students in the capital Dakar, trained as normal on a weekday afternoon in the middle of Ramadan, sweat dripping as they played a full-pace practice match against a team from the police academy. "I can't give up football, and I can't give up religion," said Mansour Ba, a 24-year-old defensive midfielder who, like some of his teammates, is fasting from dawn to dusk.

It is even more demanding to marshal opponents when weakened by hunger, but Ba, who models his game on former French international Claude Makelele, still flew into tackles on the dusty, brown pitch.

Like Ba, 94percent of Senegal's 13million population are Muslim. For the players, the holy month of Ramadan is an opportunity to prove that Islam can coexist with other parts of life - in this case, football.

"I try to do the two at the same time but it's difficult not eating and drinking, it's a big effort," Ba said.

Football is hugely popular in Senegal. Crowds in their hundreds routinely turn out to watch amateur matches, replica shirts in the colours of AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona are practically a uniform among young men, and Senegalese striker El Hadji Diouf, now menacing defenders for English Premier League outfit Sunderland, pouts out across the coastal city from advertising hoardings.

Others on Ba's team were also suffering for their sport and their religion.

"It does make it more difficult," said attacking midfielder Souleymane Sane, after listening to the coach's pre-match team talk.

"You want to drink water but you can't. I've had nothing to eat or drink since six in the morning, which makes it difficult to concentrate."

Not all of Karack's players go without food and drink during the daylight hours of holy month, but those who do are more likely to make mistakes on the pitch, says coach Seydou Badji.

"You see it in the game. It's difficult to concentrate all the time, to play at a high rhythm, if you haven't eaten."

Badji would prefer to have a full squad of non-fasting players but, though he stresses the risk to health, he cannot force them to eat.

"They know it's dangerous, but they're big boys," he said, while his assistant barked instructions at the players.

Badji, a disciplinarian, still selects fasting players for competitive games and makes no allowances for them. "I don't change the fitness regime during Ramadan. We prepare professionally. it's not an excuse."

The pious players are prepared to endure hunger and weakness until the end of the month for the sake of faith and of football. - Reuter