Sheffield United's Mo Besic on faith, charity and why observing Ramadan has made him a better person and more effective footballer
Earlier this morning, while most people across the country were still tucked up in bed, Muhamed Besic could be found preparing a simple meal in his kitchen before saying the first prayer of the day.
“Dates and a banana, that’s always the first thing I eat, because of the training sessions we’re doing,” he says. “I sleep from midnight until 2.30am, have a little bit to eat and pray, then go back to sleep.”
Besic is describing his schedule during Ramadan and the reasons behind it. One of the most important dates on the Islamic calendar, the Sheffield United midfielder and other practicing adult Muslims have spent the past month going without food from sunrise to sunset.
But what Besic really wants to do is dispel some of the myths surrounding his faith. Particularly those relating to why its followers observe the fast, its meaning and claims it is incompatible with professional sport. Nothing, Besic insists, could be further from the truth.
“The purpose of fasting in Islam is to increase your strength and self control,” he explains, “So that we can resist bad habits and not do the wrong things all year round. It is a time for you to get closer to your creator. To reflect and think about what you do. It will mean slightly different things to different people. But that, in my words, is how I see Ramadan personally.”
On Saturday, Besic will celebrate Eid - a three day religious holiday marking the end of the fast which started this year on April 23. With United’s first team squad now returning to training as the Premier League season prepares to restart following the coronavirus pandemic, some will argue it has come at a particularly fortuitous time for the 27-year-old, who was brought-up in Germany by his Bosnian parents. Although Besic’s motivations are religious - “I like to feel a connection with my maker - he insists they make him a better footballer too.
“As a sportsman, the mind is very important. Yes, doing what we do takes discipline. I eat in the morning and then have what it called the iftar during Ramadan - the last meal of the day, which is always a big one.
“I try to be a better person. If I don’t eat, I actually feel more disciplined. So every Monday and Thursday, even outside Ramadan, I like to fast anyway. For me, it helps clean my mind and I think we all eat too much - often when we don’t have to - which is a shame because there are lots of people in the world who go hungry.”
Charity has always been important to Besic, who arrived on loan from Everton following United’s promotion from the Championship. Despite being born in Berlin, he rejected the chance to represent Germany at youth level and pledged allegiance to Bosnia and Herzegovina instead.
“It is difficult to explain why,” he admits. “Difficult to put into words. The under-19’s wanted me when I was 17 years old - and I love Germany as a country, for what it’s given me - but I felt Bosnian in my heart.”
It was there, following one of his many visits to the Balkans, where Besic became involved with a project helping homeless and vulnerable people - many of whom had been left mentally scarred by the region’s conflicts during the Nineties.
“I got told about this group that was helping orphans and grown ups,” he remembers. “Lots of them had problems because of the war. I went there about a month before we went out to the World Cup in Brazil six years ago. So I paid for their tickets to come to the tournament and made sure they were treated as well as can be. That was a long time ago now, but I still keep in touch with them and some of the people there have my number if they need anything.”
Besic made his debut in the competition during Bosnia’s opening group game, against Argentina at the Maracana. His memories of that match lead to a surprising revelation. Despite being viewed as a midfield enforcer, Besic isn’t really a midfielder at all.
“I’m a central defender actually,” he admits. “That’s where I started out playing. But when I went to the World Cup, I got played as a ‘6’ and it just stuck. I seem to have been there, for the most part, ever since.”
After progressing through Hamburg’s youth system, Besic, still the youngest player to represent Bosnia at senior level, joined Hungarian giants Ferencvaros.
“It was crazy there, the derbies. The one against Ujpest, I’ve never been in anything like it. One of my first games for Everton was the Liverpool derby and, although it was good, the atmosphere was nowhere near as hostile as in Budapest.”
It was at Goodison Park, when injury stalled his progress, where Besic rediscovered his faith.
“When I was young, I went to the mosque of course. Then, at 16, I went to Hamburg and I stopped going. I suppose it happens.
“I had a great first season at Everton, had a wonderful contract but I felt empty. I was out for nine months with a ligament problem and everyone forgot me. I had to go out on loan to Middlesbrough, which is a wonderful club, but they were in the Championship and I’m thinking ‘I’m still the same player I was before.’ I was thinking ‘Why do you do all this, everything you do?’ There needs to be more to life than just money and materialistic things. Other things are much more important. So I went back to the mosque and I don’t feel empty anymore. Because I’m not.”
Besic has made 13 appearances for United, scoring his first goal for the club during January’s FA Cup win over Millwall at The Den.
“My faith makes me a better person,” he says. “During Ramadan, we refrain from saying bad things and think about what we do. I believe that can only be a good thing.”