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Kekuta Manneh adjusts to Ramadan in the time of COVID-19

Ramadan has always been a challenge for pro athletes, but this year, it’s been complicated by COVID-19.

SOCCER: MAR 24 MLS - FC Cincinnati at New England Revolution Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every year in MLS, a handful of players observe the Islamic month of Ramadan. For Muslims, Ramadan is a period of 29-30 days of fasting. That means no food or drink from daybreak until sundown. For athletes, this presents a clear dilemma between following one’s faith and maintaining the hyper-athleticism required for this level of professional performance. And each year, the Muslim players in the league have to strike a balance between those two. For example, DC United’s goalkeeper, Bill Hamid, fasts at least part of Ramadan every year.

It’s not easy being on the field especially in times like this where the heat is going to get bad, [] ... so I want to have the right things in my body to make sure I’m giving myself the energy and strength to play as well as I can.

There are other examples across the league. Indeed, the MLS website produced a video last year where they talked to LAFC players Mohamed El-Munir, Adama Diomande, and Latif Blessing (along with staff members and fans) about their faith, including how Ramadan affects their play.

But this year is not a normal year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have, of course shut down. But the pandemic declaration has also corresponded with the month of Ramadan, which is slated to end this weekend. Mosques have also closed and Muslims both in the United States and across the world have had to adapt and modify their traditions in order to keep to strict social distancing and curb the spread of the virus. And that means that Muslim players here in the United States are doubly affected by the pandemic. They have to cope with the same struggles of a suspended playing season AND the disruptions in their spiritual and faith traditions. I reached out to Kekutah Manneh, a Gambian American forward who plays for FC Cincinnati to talk about how Ramadan has changed for him, how things compare practicing in the United States vs. Gambia, and how he’s been adapting to life in lock down. We also briefly talked about the men’s national team and Manneh’s international career.

While each player has to make their own choice with how they handle professional play and Ramadan, Manneh has tried to observe the fast when possible. In a normal year, he has a weekly schedule, fasting at the start of the week and recovering in the days before a match. While he would try to fast during home games, he said he always took a break for away matches. A normal Ramadan schedule would have him go from the 5 pm training sessions straight to the mosque in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati where he would break his fast and pray the sunset prayers. After dinner, he’d be back at the mosque for night and special Ramadan prayers.

With prayers going past midnight, that led to the big difficulty that Manneh pointed out for Ramadan: lack of sleep. It’s not so much the lack of food or water that causes problems; one can get used to that and adjust. Instead, it’s a lack of sleep. In Cincinnati, the fast this year generally goes from before 5 in the morning to sometime after 8:30 PM, though the exact times change as the days pass by and the daylight hours increase. When you factor in late nights in prayer, that leaves only a few hours of sleep before you have to eat breakfast. And it’s that disrupted sleep schedule that throws players off. The second major problem is the heat. Manneh said that, last year, fasting in the Cincinnati heat was “brutal.”

This is all different from what Manneh remembers from his childhood in Gambia. Where he grew up, the entire town would coordinate to have specific foods on each day of the week. Walking home from school or the mosque, all you would smell would be the beef or fish frying in the outdoor kitchens in the homes all around you. He has memories of getting custom tailored clothes for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that follows the end of Ramadan, of going door-to-door asking for cash and candy (but really the cash), a Gambian tradition known as Salibo. And he remembers going to play in community soccer games. When you are in such a place, Ramadan becomes about exactly that experience of shared community.

But if those Ramadans were about community, then this year’s Ramadan has been about isolation. The mosques are closed. There are no night prayers being held. People don’t gather to share food and break their fasts together. People can’t gather together, not without potentially risking their lives.

For an immigrant like Manneh, this has been particularly difficult. There’s a narrative that Ramadan is an austere time, where followers purposefully make themselves feel tired and hungry. But the truth is that Ramadan fills people with energy, including Manneh. It gives people a sense of focus and drive, and for Manneh, that was both on and off the field. But, this year, it’s been more empty and hollow. MLS suspended play the ahead of FC Cincinnati’s home opener, so Manneh and the rest of the team haven’t seen their home supporters yet. Indeed, most of the team hasn’t even seen each other in weeks. Training only recently picked back up, and that’s exclusively been individual training. Because of the danger of having people close together, the training sessions have been split up into several different sessions so that there aren't too many people in one place at one time. The one positive is that players, Manneh included, can now fast every day. But that doesn’t make up for the disrupted schedules and all the new-found empty time. Manneh has been filling the time in with a few different activities; dropping off food at a local hospital, watching documentaries of Islamic figures on Netflix, and chatting with childhood friends through WhatsApp and HouseParty. He’s found a new favorite West African store and market, a place called Tarenga in downtown Cincy. But it’s not the same. The players miss the soccer too, just like us fans.

When asked about the USMNT, Manneh remained hopeful, both on the teams broader prospects and on his international career. He said that he’s excited with the young prospects making their way into both the club and international football scene. In particular, he named Gio Reyna’s performances with Dortmund. Manneh also was impressed with the play of Wolfsburg’s teenage winger Uly Llanez when he played in the January camp match. While he’s been into the national team camp, Manneh has yet to make his international debut. He’s been thwarted by badly timed injuries with a shoulder surgery and following rehab ruling him out for the camp from this past January. However Manneh says that he’s been in touch with Berhalter on getting a shot at the team. Realistically, he told me, his best shot is next year’s January camp, depending on how this year plays out.

As always, stay safe out there.