Devout Muslim Alim Ozturk has no concerns about his Europa League preparations being hindered by his religious obligation to fast during Ramadan.
The Islamic holy month began on June 6 and runs until July 5, and the Hearts captain, as he does every year, is attempting to observe it as conscientiously as possible. That means no food and drink during daylight hours, which, in a Scottish summer, leaves him only able to fuel his body between 10pm and 3am.
Such a scenario is not ideal given that Ozturk returned for pre-season training last week to prepare for his side’s Europa League first qualifying round tie against Estonian side FC Infonet, the first leg of which takes place at Tynecastle a week tonight. However, the skipper insists he is coping fine with the demands being placed on his body, and, due to his profession, is able to fuel up when required.
“I observe Ramadan as much as possible, but sometimes if I train really, really hard I have to drink and eat,” he said, speaking from the club’s pre-season training base in St Andrews. “I will also drink and eat on match-days. Unless it is a really hard session or a match-day, though, I don’t take any food or drink during the day – nothing. You can eat from 10pm to 3am but during the day I eat nothing.
“When you do really hard sessions, you feel it then. We had a really hard session on Monday. Your health is really important, so if you feel like it is not good for your body, you can eat or drink, and that’s what I did on Monday. I tried to go without but training was hard and I felt like I couldn’t do it any more, so that was the moment I had a drink.”
Ozturk admits Ramadan was easier to observe during the close-season when he was with his family in Alkmaar. However, he explained that Hearts are supportive of the religious beliefs of he and Muslim team-mate Faycal Rherras. “The first week was a lot easier because I was at home in Holland with my family, and my mother woke me up to eat,” explained the 23-year-old. “But the sports scientists at Hearts are very good and they are here in St Andrews. They organise food for me and Faycal at 10pm. I try to eat a lot at night but I find I am more thirsty than hungry.
“I try to go to sleep as early as possible and then wake up about 2.30am to get more food. It’s really important to eat properly. The rainy weather makes it easier for me, but when it’s hot, it’s so hard. In my first season at Hearts, the weather was hot and it was harder but the weather we have just now makes it easier.”
Ozturk feels strong physically and has no qualms about the effects of fasting leaving him short of stamina for next week’s Tynecastle clash with Infonet, or, for that matter, the second leg in Tallinn, which comes the day after Ramadan ends. “I still feel like I have the same energy during Ramadan,” he said. “I don’t worry about my fitness or athletic performance going into games. I don’t believe that is affected. I believe in God and I think he will help me with this. My religion is really important. It doesn’t matter what, that is the most important thing to me.”
Pre-season has clashed more significantly with Ramadan then normal this year due to the fact Hearts’ Europa League involvement has led to an early return to work for Robbie Neilson’s squad. Ozturk admits the prospect of playing in continental competition for the first time in his career far offsets any sense of hardship at returning to work in mid-June.
“We have had four weeks off but we are coming back for European games, so I’m fine with that,” he said. “When you come back for pre-season, you know it will be tough and there will be hard sessions but we play in Europe and that is a really big thing. As a player you want this so it makes it a bit easier to come back early. I had a fitness programme over the summer and I did some running during the break. I had to or when we came back I would have been in trouble. I did it, so I am fine.”
Ozturk’s physical wellbeing is in stark contrast to last summer when abdominal problems severely disrupted his pre-season and subsequently took a major toll on the first half of his maiden campaign as Hearts captain. After enjoying a strong finish to the season, though, the influential Turk is delighted to report that he remains pain-free. “It is going really well now and I don’t feel anything,” he said. “I hope we can keep it like that. Last year I had two surgeries and my summer was not like a normal summer. When I came back, I had another injury and that was annoying, but I hope this year will not be like that.”