Hearts captain Alim Ozturk is waking up in the middle of the night but, despite the fact that his first foray into European football is now just a week away, he is neither suffering from nightmares nor too excited to sleep: he is simply desperate to fuel his body as he strives to adhere to religious rituals.
A Muslim, the Hearts captain is observing ramadan, a month of fasting, where he can’t eat or drink anything, including water, during daylight hours. Always a mental and physical challenge, the difficulty is magnified when it coincides with Hearts’ return to training and an intense pre-season designed to have players quickly up to speed as they hurtle headlong into the Europa League qualifiers.
The first match is at home to FC Infonet next Thursday and, while the effects are being felt, Ozturk is adamant that he is finding the right balance between religious observance and making sure he is ready for the challenge. Having embarked on the annual fast while on a close season visit with family, in Holland and then in Turkey, he said it was OK but reconciling it with the arduous demands of a pre-season work out is tougher.
“I did the first week at home. It is much easier, I was with family and my mum was there. I get up around 2.30/3am to get food so I need to go to sleep as early as possible.
“It can be hard when the training sessions are tough. When that happens I drink and eat. I will also try to eat on match days but in training I try to keep to ramadan as much as I can.
“It makes it easier for me when it is raining but when it is so hot it is so hard to do. My first session was harder but with the weather just now it is easier. You feel it when you have had hard sessions. Your health is very important and if you feel it is not good for your body then you are allowed to eat and drink. I did that on Monday and I felt like I couldn’t do any more and I had to have a drink.
“You can eat from about 10pm to 3am but you can’t have anything all day. At 10pm the sport scientists organise food for me and [summer signing and fellow ramadan observer] Faycal Rherras. We try to eat a lot in the evening.”
But the European tie gives Ozturk something to focus on and, along with his faith, helps him push through and get the most out of head coach Robbie Neilson’s workouts.
“I believe in God and he will help me with this,” said Ozturk. “My religion is very important. It is the most important thing for me. You know pre-season will be tough but we play in Europe and that is a really big thing and I think as a player it makes it a bit easier.”
Having been out on the training pitch when the draw was made, the defender said everyone was happy to head back in and discover who they would face. “It is a nice draw and I think we can go through. I think we have enough quality here and I am confident.”
Confident of getting into the next round and hopeful of progressing even further, the added value in that being the momentum it would offer Hearts when they turn their attentions to domestic fare, kicking off the Premiership campaign with a head to head with champions Celtic.
“Aberdeen started well last season and that was important and I think if we can do the same then it will be a big thing when we come back from the European games. I think we have four weeks and then it’s Celtic. If you can get through a few rounds before then, that will be amazing.”