The Rational Ref

Weighty issue of fitness has an element of luck

For the fortunate few with good genes, in-built athleticism is enough. Others must work harder

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 11:14am

Just how fit do players need to be to play soccer, and play it well? The answer appears to depend on the individuals concerned. Take, for example, former England player Carlton Palmer. "He covers every blade of grass out there, but that's only because his first touch is so crap," said Palmer's former Southampton manager, Dave Jones.

Being fit, it seems, is all relative. Palmer applied himself determinedly, doggedly and tenaciously despite the fact his long legs and gangly body made him look as awkward as a baby giraffe rather than a well-conditioned athlete. Soccer fans, at least in England, appear to appreciate application and hard graft far more than ability. Just look at Scott Parker, who three seasons ago won the Football Writers' Association Player of the Year award for his consistently gritty performances at West Ham United.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho even fashioned his club's Players' Player of the Year award so unsung workhorse Claude Makelele's would be recognised for his crucial contributions to the team's Premiership-winning performance in the 2004-05 season.

This happened the season following Real Madrid president Florentino Perez's public refusal to boost Makelele's meagre contract compared with his Galacticos teammates and instead sold him off to Chelsea by criticising his technical abilities: "We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and 90 per cent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres."

Teammates Zinedine Zidane and Steve McManaman disagreed and described Makelele as the most important and least appreciated player at Real Madrid, always working hard for the team.

Keeping your head down, working hard and following instructions are common characteristics championed by coaches. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that maintaining a certain level of fitness and applying maximum effort is important. Even gifted player Marcel Desailly, in a recent interview with Rational Ref, said: "In England if you work hard you still have the opportunity to succeed. You can see there are medium-class players who have done well and been able to have very good careers."

Aside from workhorses, there are other players such as Clarence Seedorf, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi who possess great technical ability and seemingly natural fitness. These players have "good engines" and perhaps their genes play an important role in their natural athleticism. Seedorf could outrun opponents with apparently little effort and never seemed to tire. At AC Milan, he was banned from weight training because his body composition was considered perfect.

Former Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King is another example of a player with good genes and natural athleticism. King hardly trained with his teammates due to his chronic condition with his knees, but kept himself fit and ready for match days. Rational Ref asked what was his secret. "Sushi! That's my secret, I haven't told many people that!" King said.

"I didn't train for the last five years of my career, yet I managed to maintain a good weight without putting on any. I've got good genes and my body is used to not having to burn calories all the time to maintain that."

Players either possess natural fitness and athleticism or have to constantly work to improve and maintain their fitness. Wayne Rooney, although supremely talented technically, needs to work hard to keep a good level of fitness. Paul Gascoigne was another player in this mould.

The trick is to first understand your own body and lifestyle, set your goals, and then tailor your training regime to achieve your goals. The current best example of this comes, not from a professional player, but from a professional referee. Phil Dowd revealed during the Hong Kong International Soccer Sevens in May that he was going to enjoy his "holiday" before seriously grinding down and embarking on an intensive six-week fitness regime. Although his refereeing performance last season was among the best in the EPL, Dowd was criticised for his increasing weight and failure to pass a fitness test. Dowd admitted to enjoying beer and kebabs, but had already set his fitness goals for the summer.

Now just as the new season is about to start, Dowd, 50, is looking like a new man, having lost 13kg. Like many players, Dowd has prepared well and is raring to go.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com