German Islamophobia’s treatment of Muslim athletes observing Ramadan
German sports pundits attribute any less than perfect performance of a Muslim sportsperson during the Holy Month to fasting, while denying extraordinary achievements by fasting athletes their due respect.
There are two annual occurrences during the month of Ramadan that are so reliable in their probability that they will happen that you can set your watch to them: Israeli occupation forces storming the Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Al-Quds and bombing the Gaza-Strip, and white German sports pundits finding a way to denigrate the faith of 1.8 billion followers of Islam by attributing a decline in athletic performance to fasting.
This year, the prime target of this seasonal brand of socially accepted Islamophobia has been French football player N’Golo Kanté of English club FC Chelsea, one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, and whose relatively weaker performance than usual during the first leg quarter-final match against Spanish side Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League was blamed on his observing Ramadan. By who? None other than his German manager, Thomas Tuchel.
“[I]f for many days you don’t drink or eat it can have an effect,” said the 58-year-old after his team lost 1:3 on their home turf at Stamford Bridge in early April. Just in time for this year’s Holy Month, white German sports pundits, as embodied by Tuchel, once again underwent vocational re- training from football aficionado to nutrition expert. In their traditional Eurocentric hubris, they seem to think that they know better than the adherents of a world religion who have been practicing the central pillar of their faith that is the fast for over a millennia.
Tuchel, who is known for his radical notions regarding dietary regimens and his utter disrespect for boundaries in enforcing them (during his stint as manager of Paris Saint-Germain, French media claimed that Tuchel had demanded from midfielder Marco Verratti the latter should lose weight, prompting a justifiably disgruntled Verratti to voice his intention of transferring elsewhere), is one to talk: German news magazine Der Focus once commented on Tuchel’s skinniness with the words “Is this slim or simply unhealthy?” And given his signature pallor one could argue that the “Tuchel- diet” (sport.de) is diametrically opposed to a balanced food intake.
The Chelsea manager’s career often seems like a time-delayed one of Liverpool FC coach Jürgen Klopp, the former on more than one occasion following in the footsteps of his German compatriot (coaching the former Klopp clubs FSV Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, then following him to the Premier League, albeit with a detour in Paris).
German media have even gone so far as to call him a “Klopp clone.” Yet when it comes to “wokeness” and cultural sensitivity, Tuchel and Klopp are worlds apart. When in the past the British sports press tried to link the performance issues of his Muslim players to their observance of Ramadan, a loyal Klopp threw himself in front of them like a human shield by saying:
“I have no problem with my players fasting. I respect their religion and they were always amazing whether they were fasting or not. There are days when [Sadio] Mané and [Mohamed] Salah come late to the dressing room because they were praying. There are many things more important than football.”
With his insensitive and textbook liberal Islamophobic comments directed at Kanté, the sore loser that is Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea has since been knocked-out of the tournament), has proven to the world that he views Klopp’s last sentence slightly differently and that when it comes to decency, empathy and loyalty, the “Klopp clone” still has a lot to learn from original Klopp.
Erasing Ramadan when it’s convenient
Another way German sports pundits like to denigrate Ramadan is by conveniently omitting when it not only does not diminish the performance of a fasting player, but enhances it, even to the level of unparalleled mastery. This is exactly what the white German sportscasters at DAZN did (in Germany, the US streaming service shares the broadcasting rights to the UEFA Champions League with Prime Video and Sky), who in their gushing praise for Real Madrid’s hat trick-scoring striker Karim Benzema during the aforementioned match and in the post-match analysis did not once think of mentioning that Benzema had been fasting.
They could have said: “For the sake of fairness und completeness, we should add that Benzema has been fasting, so the outstanding performance that we witnessed tonight has to be seen in this light and deserves even more credit.” Or, God forbid, surpass themselves by saying something along the lines of Benzema’s superior performance not having occurred in spite of his observance of Ramadan, but because of it; that the razor-sharp focus and spiritual energy achieved through fasting (seen by the Westcentric worldview as a health risk when Muslims do it, but as beneficial to the body and spirit when done by Hindu yogis, which Whitey then emulates to the point of cultural appropriation) had a thing or two to do with his phenomenal performance.
But far from it: lying by omission is also lying, and in their deliberate erasure of Ramadan the white German “professionals” at DAZN (in Germany, sports commentators are almost exclusively white), who normally don’t shy away from espousing their allegedly anti-racist views when commenting favourably on football players taking a knee, sadly revealed the limits of their progressive politics.
“Ramadan Kyrie”: Islamophilia in the NBA
That there is an alternative way of going about representing Ramadan in sports media one could see in the NBA these days, North America’s highest men’s professional basketball league: after the Brooklyn Nets’ victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers in mid-April, Nets star Kyrie Irving, a convert to Islam, was asked by an American reporter:
“Kyrie, on a personal note: you have said that you are fasting for Ramadan…How do you muster the energy to go out and score 34 points with very little nutrition in your body?”
What Irving answered was a counter-narrative rebuttal against all the Westcentric agnostics and atheists and the individualistic societies that have (ill-in)formed them, who in their cultural narcissism and colonial arrogance underestimate the communal and holistic meaning of Ramadan:
“Well, it’s a journey with God, and I’m not alone in this. I have brothers and sisters all around the world that are fasting with me. We hold our prayers and our meditations very sacred…God’s inside me, God’s inside you, God’s inside all of us, so I’m walking with faith. That’s all that matters."
I watched the Nets’ first play-off match against the Boston Celtics live on DAZN (the Nets lost in the last second due to a buzzer-beating shot by Celtics star player Jayson Tatum) and even though a fasting Kyrie Irving once again displayed highest levels of basketball artistry, the German commentators again did not mention that Irving was fasting, much less go out of their way to establish a causal link between his observance of Ramadan and his high performance.
“Fans have dubbed Irving with the ‘Ramadan Kyrie’ nickname as he puts up impressive scoring outbursts despite the guard fasting during games,” writes Massachusetts news portal MassLive.com. Look how positively Ramadan can be portrayed if there is the will to do so! DAZN commentators in Germany should take note.
I wonder what they had to say to what Celtics star Jaylen Brown, Irving’s former team mate who is also fasting, told the attendants of a press conference before the play-offs:
“Ramadan is something special…It’s something that’s saved my life in a lot of ways. So shoutout to all the people who are participating and shoutout to everybody who shows respect because, in reality, some things are bigger than basketball.”
Hear that, Thomas Tuchel? Ramadan is not only not bad for your health, but also “life-saving.” So show some respect. Brown’s comments should put all liberal Islamophobes with their unprovoked acrimony towards the Muslim fast to shame.
And like Klopp and Irving, the latter who at a press conference in May 2021 during which he condemned “Israel’s” bombing of Palestine said that “basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now”, Brown has also got his priorities straight. Deen over dunya, as Muslims say.
Fair play for Islam
Returning to European football, there was another wonderful example this Ramadan of a fasting athlete excelling in his sport and being afforded the transparent and contextualized respect he deserves: A match in Portugal’s first division saw FC Porto’s Iranian international Mehdi Taremi scoring a hat trick in his club’s 7:0 win against Portimonense, prompting the Primeira Liga to post this on their official Twitter page: “During the day, the rules of Ramadan are followed; while hunger is satisfied at night with goals.”
Fair play is a key tenet of competitive sports, and it also includes respect. UEFA’s Respect campaign was launched in 2008 as a social responsibility programme with the objective of “work[ing] towards unity and respect across gender, race, religion and ability,” says UEFA.
With its deliberate erasure of the positive role religious fasting plays in the athletic performances of Muslim sportspeople and its liberal Islamophobia of constructing a causality between observing Ramadan and performance issues, German punditry, be it in the form of the sports commentators at DAZN Germany or a manager like Thomas Tuchel, have repeatedly proven that they have yet to embody this spirit of respect for the religion of Islam.