Mohamed Elneny embraces Ramadan as Arsenal eye Premier League title glory

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LONDON: Mohamed Elneny is the living, breathing, smiling proof that observing Ramadan can be compatible with the life of a Premier League footballer.

Despite operating in the most physically demanding league in the world, Arsenal’s longest-serving player is fasting through the holy month as he always does. 

On one level the two are incompatible — you would not run a Formula One car on an empty fuel tank — but Elneny would have it no other way.

Balancing faith with football works for him, even if it leaves his teammates perplexed at times.

“They ask me so many questions. ‘Mo, when can you drink? When can you eat food?’ For them it doesn’t make any sense to train without drink or food. But it’s something in my head that I want to do,” he told Arab News.

“If you want to do something you are going to find a way to do it. You just train your mind. 

“Actually I feel more strong in Ramadan because we do Ramadan for God and when you do something for God the reward will be big. He will not make you feel tired. He gives you power. 

“Today, for example, in training the players were asking: ‘Are you fasting?’ I was running around like normal. The way I train and the power God gives me, you would think I’m not fasting.

“You don’t think about the food or the drink. You focus on the Qur’an and praying, how life is happening, how the sky is beautiful and you think about the poor people. Those who don’t have food or money,” Elneny said.

“If a poor person comes to you now of course you give to them because you know how starving and thirsty they are. You need to feel this. That is why it is great to have Ramadan. You learn how to look after people.” 

The Egyptian paid tribute to the understanding he receives from the Arsenal staff, including manager Mikel Arteta.

“I used to do Ramadan in Switzerland when I played there and some coaches would ask if I can maybe do half of Ramadan or some days on and some not. Mikel completely supports me and so do all the nutritionists and doctors at Arsenal. They are happy for me to do it,” he said.

“The nutritionist, for example, gives me supplements and protein drinks to have during the night so I will not dehydrate because my body needs water. The doctors support me too. I have to say thank you for this.”

The Premier League are supportive, too, having introduced a Ramadan pause that can be activated by officials in games where the sun sets during the match.

The precedent was set three years ago when Leicester’s game against Crystal Palace was briefly halted to allow Wesley Fofana and Cheik Kouyate to break their fast with energy gels.

The clocks go forward by an hour in the UK this weekend for British Summer Time, so on Wednesday the sun will set eight minutes into Arsenal’s game against Luton.

It is a game in which Elneny could feature, with Arteta having to balance twin Premier League and Champions League pursuits.

It would be a rare outing for him in a season in which he has been restricted to just six appearances.

He is disappointed not to have featured more in what has been an exceptional campaign for Arsenal so far, but he is about as far removed from a dressing-room disrupter as it is possible to imagine.

“I want to play all the time. I don’t want to miss one game. But the way I am, in my mind and my heart, I don’t think about myself, I only think about how I am going to support my teammates and my coach and how I am going to give everything I have to the team,” he said.

“I love to give. I have been the same since the first day I played football.

“I know that to have people like this in the squad helps the team. It gives energy and makes the team strong. I always believe that it is much better to have a good team than to have good individual players. That comes from the players who don’t play and who still give energy to the players who do play. I’m happy to play this role. 

“Whether I play or I don’t play, I leave it to Mikel. When I am at the training ground I don’t want to give Mikel a headache, I want him to focus on the team. We are here to support each other, not to think about ourselves. I’m a team player.” 

There was talk of a move to Turkiye in the January transfer window but the 31-year-old remains an Arsenal loyalist, the last player on the books signed by Arsene Wenger.

The great French manager was in charge when Arsenal last won the Premier League title — unbeaten — in 2003-2004.

After coming close last season only to fade on the run-in, they are involved in a gripping three-way fight this season with Liverpool and Manchester City.

Arsenal travel to City tomorrow in a game that could be critical to the title race.

“We have worked super-hard with Mikel, the fans are excited with us and we are literally going to give everything to achieve what we want to from this year. We are going to fight for every game because we know how important every moment is now,” Elneny said.

“City, Chelsea — no one game is easy now. That’s why the Premier League is the best league in the world. When you play any team you never know what is going to happen.”

Elneny has developed an addiction for the breathless intensity of English football since his arrival from Basel eight years ago.

So much so that he has set up his own football club in London — Elneny FC — with the aim of them playing in the Premier League one day.

“I want to change the name in the future but I thought if I put my name to it, players would maybe come to the trials. In the end 500 came, which is a big number,” he said.

“We are still at the early stages. We’re going to join the leagues next year, Inshallah. We want to start as high as possible to save us some years and then hopefully we can be in the Premier League one day.

“It would be great for me to have players from Egypt and other Arab countries to join the team but I’m happy to help the English players as well.”

He is a hands-on owner of the club, having just obtained his UEFA B coaching license. 

“I’m doing my badges now and that’s going to help me when I finish playing. I will be able to swap straight away to be a coach. All my life I want football,” he said.

However, Elneny has no intention of retiring any time soon. Or from stepping away from international football.

“I have 101 caps but I have six or seven years to go with Egypt. I am still young!” he said, laughing. “I love the national team and I am so proud to play with them. It is a great feeling when you represent your country. We are 110 million people in Egypt. Can you imagine being one of the best 11?”

The disappointment of AFCON in January, when Egypt were knocked out at the last-16 stage, has faded. He is already looking ahead to the 2025 event in Morocco.

Before then, though, he and Arsenal have business to attend to — big business. 

If they can land one of the big prizes, it will mean a lot to everyone at the club but no-one more than Elneny, who has become part of the fabric of the place.

He might not be front and center of the on-field mission this season, but off it there is no-one who is regarded as highly.

A fortnight ago Elneny was asked to cut the ribbon to open Arsenal’s multi-faith players’ prayer room at the Emirates Stadium. It is for anyone and everyone, but in practice it is their beloved Muslim midfielder’s own quiet space of contemplation. 

“That’s why I love this club,” he said. “They have always looked after me. I never feel like I am away from Egypt or away from my family. Arsenal is like a family. I’m really happy I came to this football club because it’s a big part of my life.”