Playing and observing Ramadan
By Marc Weber
The Vancouver Whitecaps' preseason trip to Tanzania is taking on new meaning.
Midfielder Nizar Khalfan, spotted on that March tour and later plucked from his club Moro United, will start his fourth straight game for the Whitecaps on Saturday as the Rochester Rhinos visit Swangard Stadium.
Vancouver is 1-0-3 since his insertion and, along with Gordon Chin, he's helped solidify central midfield in partnership with Martin Nash. Diversity in that crucial position was an area of concern to start the season, with defensive-minded Mason Trafford and Ethan Gage splitting the duties next to Nash.
At just 21 years old, Khalfan has the potential to be a far more valuable asset to the club than any togetherness gained on a safari.
"He's technically very sound and his physics are so impressive -- he can run and run for 90 minutes," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, whose club can rein in fifth-place Rochester with a win.
"He's a very good player," added forward Marlon James, who'll miss Saturday's game with a groin injury. "He's very confident on the ball and his quickness of thinking, his awareness of things is impressive."
Khalfan, along with defender and fellow national team player Nadir Haroub, joined the Whitecaps on trial in early July.
The Whitecaps bought Khalfan from Moro for an undisclosed amount on Aug. 13. Haroub, meanwhile, is on loan from his club, Yanga, which he called the Manchester United of Tanzania.
Moro, then, is Manchester City?
"More like West Bromwich Albion," quipped Haroub, who has yet to crack the lineup.
Khalfan said the biggest adjustment to North American soccer has been the speed at which the game is played and the physicality of the league. He's enjoyed the challenge and is proud that he and Haroub have been able to stick after their first professional trial. They watched several countrymen go away for trials and come back unsuccessful.
"I feel good, very happy," said Khalfan.
As Muslims, they are currently observing Ramadan, but Khalfan doesn't fast on game days. Their usual routine is to eat late in the evening and wake up and eat again around 2 a.m.
"It's no problem [to fast and train], we are used to it," said Khalfan. "But the game, it is very hard. Too hard."
Khalfan's emergence has relegated Chin to the role of substitute for now, though Thordarson was quick to praise Chin's contributions. They could play together as Thordarson also likes what Khalfan brings on the wing.
"Both are extremely good at winning balls and distributing balls," said the coach. "Nizar, I feel, is a bit more dangerous going forward and playing people through."
Nash was duly diplomatic in his captain's role: "A lot of people say if you win the central midfield battle you'll win the game," he said. "Now we've got two, three maybe four options there and it's great. It just makes us stronger."
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