Abdoulaye Doucoure: Everton midfielder on Islam, Ramadan, Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana
On Wednesday evening, Muslims around the world will begin Ramadan, fasting during daylight hours and aiming to connect with their faith.
This includes the 253 Muslim players in the first teams and academies of the top four tiers of English football who, according to advisers Nujum Sports, make up about 5% of the total.
Those players will be juggling the exertions of the Islamic holy month with training schedules and matches.
“I always love Ramadan,” Everton midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure tells BBC Sport. “Sometimes playing football has been hard because Ramadan has been in the summer and during pre-season.
“But I have always been lucky to practise Ramadan and there have never been problems with my physical condition – I am grateful for that.
“My religion is the most important thing in my life – I put my religion first, then comes my work. You can do both together and I am happy with that.
“You get so much free time so I am always able to go to the mosque to pray and to enjoy my religion when I’m at home.”
‘Without my faith, I would not be in this position’
Doucoure was born and raised in a suburb of Paris to Malian parents, and moved to England in 2016 when he joined top-flight side Watford from Rennes.
An FA Cup final appearance came in 2019 when the Hornets were beaten by Manchester City and, when his club were relegated at the end of the following season, he joined the Toffees for £20m.
Speaking at the club’s training ground after another gruelling session under manager Sean Dyche, 30-year-old Doucoure explains what his faith means to him.
“My family is a very religious family so I learned how to be a good Muslim and for me that is very important,” he says. “My faith helped me to go through a lot of barriers so it is very important to me.
“In football and life you go through pain and disappointment. Football is always up and down – sometimes you don’t play, sometimes you are injured, but my faith helped me through this. I am grateful to God for giving me that strength.
“I always make dua [supplication], always pray for Allah to help us in games. Without my faith, I would not be in this position today.”
‘Premier League best in world for Muslim players’
Doucoure lives in Greater Manchester with his family and is a regular visitor to the local mosque, where other worshippers know he is a professional footballer and are “happy to welcome” him.
That feeling of belonging extends to the Premier League and England as a whole, with Doucoure describing it as “one of the best countries in Europe”.
Asked whether he had been in any situation where his faith could be compromised, he replied: “We feel very confident here, very accepted and everything is in place for Muslim people to enjoy.
“In the Premier League you are free to do whatever suits you, they will never do anything against your faith and this is great.
“I was born in France and worked there, but between France and England there is a big difference. English people are a great example.
“Sometimes you have to listen to the people and understand what the faith means to them. It is not a choice – it matters to us to protect our faith 100%.
“I always wanted to be in the Premier League and I want to stay much longer here. It is the best league for Muslims to be in.”
Why Salah is ‘perfect’
Everton are in a unique situation compared with other clubs as Doucoure, Idrissa Gueye and Belgium international Amadou Onana form an all-Muslim midfield.
The trio hold a “strong relationship” on and off the pitch, praying in the dressing room where Gueye acts as the imam, and attending the mosque for Jummah – Friday prayers.
Doucoure adds: “We speak the same language so are very close and play together in the midfield, which brings us even closer.
“We always pray together and ask for space to pray. People are very welcoming and give us the space. Idrissa usually leads because he is older and has a good voice.”
And Doucoure puts aside footballing rivalries when asked about his sporting role models.
“I love Sadio Mane, I love Mohamed Salah,” he says about the Muslim pair, who formed a potent attack for Liverpool before Mane joined Bayern Munich last summer.
“It is not about football – you know the reality between the clubs – but as a human being I love him [Salah].
“As a footballer you always want to be an example and Mohamed Salah is one of those. He is doing well at his club so people love him, but they also learn about his religion Islam. He is a good example for us and is perfect.
“He is good for society and if myself and my team-mates can be an example to others in the city [of Liverpool], that would be great.”
‘I fast every day in Ramadan – I know my body well’
Everton’s Muslim players Doucoure, Onana, Gueye and Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic each have an individualised meal plan during Ramadan.
The club’s performance nutritionist Lloyd Parker recommends loading the players up with carbohydrates, while respecting their cultural traditions.
Before starting the fast in the early hours, a typical meal would consist of porridge, eggs or jam on toast and fruit juice – and a tray would be left outside players’ rooms at away games.
They tend to enjoy a three-course meal at night with a starter of minestrone soup, a pasta or rice dish for main and apple crumble or jam roly-poly to finish.
“I fast every day, I don’t miss any days,” says Doucoure. “It has become normal and very easy for me. I started fasting at 12 or 13 years old and now I am 30. I know my body very well – I have a good breakfast beforehand which helps me through the day.
“Training is still the same during Ramadan, but when we go away we might need to eat later than the others, so the chef prepares food for us, making sure everything is in place as at home. We get halal food so there are no problems.
“During Ramadan the family comes together to break the fast and then we go to the mosque for Taraweeh [evening prayers]. I love this time because you meet some new people as well – Ramadan is a good moment for Muslims to be connected with our faith.
“Reading more of the Quran and learning from it is something that I always do and, during Ramadan, that is something all Muslims have to increase.”