2 May 2022
How Muslim stars are balancing Rugby League and Ramadan
The French international explains why he believes his body is in better shape during Ramadan
Rugby League is one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet, but some athletes have put their bodies through an even bigger challenge during Ramadan.
During the month of Ramadan – which in 2022 has been observed during April - most Muslims choose to fast during daylight hours, which they believe brings them closer to God and offers a chance for reflection.
For Muslim Rugby League players that means having to train and play at an elite level without eating or drinking as normal, and this year it has coincided with the notoriously difficult Easter fixture period.
While fans may not be aware of the sacrifices made by players, for France and Toulouse winger Ilias Bergal that has involved playing two of Toulouse’s three Super League games - including one in the French sun at 4pm on Easter Monday.
Despite the grueling prospect, Bergal said the sacrifice felt “easy” thanks to the spirituality of the period, which culminates with Eid al-Fitr celebrations this week.
He told RLWC2021: “It’s a good reminder for us how we have to be during the whole year, not just the month of Ramadan. It’s very special. We wait for this month during the year. We pray a lot at night time which brings me peace and serenity and that helps my health too.
“We fast during the day and we pray a lot during the night. It’s not just fasting – there is the spiritual side. There’s something inside that you can feel. There is a sacrifice. During the month we have to be good and do our best. We put other desires out and focus on God, the religion, and ask a lot for forgiveness, because sometimes we can make mistakes.”
The winger said the yearly fast reminds Muslims to be grateful for what they have every day and strengthens their spiritual connection, which he believes has helped him during the gruelling Easter period.
Bergal said: “That was a bit tough to be fair, but on the spiritual side I was so happy to do it with fasting, and I was asking God to help, so it was going way better than usual – my legs were very light and [with] no cramp. I struggle to understand and explain, because usually when I drink [and put in a big effort], my body is tight, but when I fast and play in the sun, I was feeling good and kept going.”
Bergal, who has three caps for France, described Ramadan as the "best month in the Muslim calendar", but added he does take time to prepare ahead of fasting. In the month before Ramadan, he will try to fast once or twice a week to get used to the routine and has been working with Toulouse Olympique’s nutritionist to plan meals, and to ensure he is drinking enough water when he can.
The winger said he’s only able to sleep for a couple of hours before training, which is followed by studying and reading the Qur’an, and while it sounds like a tough schedule for an elite athlete, Bergal believes it actually benefits his performance on the pitch.
Bergal said: “It’s completely special. On the spiritual side, which is really important for me, I feel way better. I don’t know how to explain, because religion is like that. I feel my body is very good, light, and I have less injuries, which is hard to explain because I don’t have water during the day. My mind is clear, I have good concentration. I try to be good and [put in] the effort like I usually do and not think that I’m fasting - I try to go out and treat it like normal.”
Bergal is the only Muslim player in the Toulouse side, he has had the support of his teammates during Ramadan, with players from different cultures asking him to explain why the period is so important.
He added it's important that more Muslims are playing at the highest level, and how having discussions about culture can help to make sport a more inclusive place for athletes from different backgrounds.
Bergal said, “It's important that there are more elite Muslim athletes; it’s something about respect. In Premier League I know referees give two minutes to the many Muslim players in the league to break the fast, which is good for Muslims and make everyone know what Ramadan is. With this, it proves that we can live altogether even if we don’t have the same religion, just by having respect and compassion. It shows that if we stick together life will be better.”
Ramadan culminates with the Eid al-Fitr celebration on the evening of 2nd May, and for Bergal that will be a moment to spend with family and friends, but also to give back. He said: “Eid is the celebration at the end of Ramadan; we all congratulate each other for doing the month, and we pray all together to ask God to accept our fast.
“We also sacrifice a sheep, and with the meat we get together with friends and family and also give to people in need. It’s one day, so at 7:30am we pray, then we do the sacrifice, then we spend the day with the family and friends.”
“The most important thing is to do it with family and friends. Like with Ramadan, to do it with friends and family around is way better because you feel the support. For Eid, it’s the same - and even with people you don’t know, you hug them and say Eid Mubarak.”
Bergal’s France side begin their Rugby League World Cup campaign against Greece at the Eco-Power Stadium in Doncaster on October 17, followed by games against Samoa and England.