The physique of soccer players has evolved in recent years. Are we facing a new modality?

Alberto Estevez / EPA

In December 2019, Cristiano Ronaldo starred in a move that went down in history for challenging what many understood to be the laws of physics.

On a crossed ball during the match between Juventus and Sampdoria by Italian Championshiphe jumped 71 centimeters and reached 2.56 meters to head the ball and score a decisive goal.

The Portuguese striker is perhaps one of the main examples of how football has changed: currently, this sport demands physical preparation and muscle strength much higher than what was required a few decades ago. “Anyone who practices professional football today is not just a player. You need to be a top athlete”, compares the physiologist Orlando Laitanoprofessor at the University of Florida, in the United States.

“The ability to run, jump and move the body is getting closer and closer to olympic athletes who train specifically one of these skills in particular”, he believes.

But what happened for sport to change so much in a few decades? Behind this true revolution, there is the advance in the knowledge of physiology and physical preparation. The doctor Paulo Zogaibcurrent coordinator of sports medicine at Esporte Clube Pinheiros, in São Paulo, remembers how the players of yesteryear had time to think what they would do with the ball.

“If you watch a game from the 1970s, you can see that midfielders like Gérson received the ball, thought about it, kept it on their feet for several minutes until an opponent approaches”, he describes. Today, every centimeter of the field is disputed and occupied by 22 athletes that are there.

“In the past, the goalkeeper only moved from midfield to very rare occasions🇧🇷 The side practically did not go on the attack🇧🇷 And the striker barely left the opponent’s area”, informs the specialist, who is also a retired professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and a member of Palmeiras for 25 years. “Currently, goalkeepers initiate the moves, full-backs often need to go from defense to attack, strikers are responsible for initiating the marking…”, he exemplifies.

the physiologist Bruno Gualano, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of São Paulo (USP), points out that even modern goalkeepers participate more in the dynamics of the game. “In theory, the goalkeeper he was the one who moved the least. But today’s teams require them to get out of the box and play with their feet,” he adds.

Behind all this is competitiveness and the need to impose the game style and the physical strength about the opponent. “This is one of those classic questions from the egg and chicken🇧🇷 What came first: did players become athletes and the sport became more intense? Or did the intensity of the matches require the players to improve their physical skills even more?”, asks Laitano.

From a game perspective, this change over the last few decades has helped to match and increase the competitiveness, experts believe. “Historically, Brazilians have always had a technical advantage over their opponents, which made the selection practically unbeatable“, analyzes Laitano. “However, over time, the opponents have been reducing this difference by evolving in the physical part and in the tagging ability“, he adds.

This has made the specialists who care for the country’s athletes have to adapt and demand not only skill and creativity, but also a level of physical preparation much bigger.

THE travelled distance by players during a match is a good measure to understand the difference between the past and the present. A work published in 2015 by a team from the University School of Physical Education in Poznan, Poland, calculates that in the 1960s and 1970s a player covered between 4 and 5 km during the 90 minutes on the field. That number has tripled since then. From the 2000s onwards, a football athlete can run up to 12 km — and some exceed the 15 km🇧🇷

“To achieve this, it is necessary to a lot of training with the objective of increasing cardiorespiratory capacity”, says Laitano.

Another notable difference is in the body constitution: the members of a modern team tend to be taller and strongerwhich allows you to withstand the intense pace and compete for space with opponents.

Zogaib says that currently there are equipment and technologies capable of measuring each parameter of the human body — and, if necessary, detecting points that can be improved in the trainings.

“Today we know genetic characteristics of the athletes. We also assess endurance capacity, running efficiency, speed thresholds, muscle mass distribution, power, muscle fiber type…”, he lists. “With that, we direct the load and the type of training in increasingly individualized🇧🇷

Gualano points out that all this capacity for analysis brought about another change in football: top athletes currently have their own staff. That is, in addition to the battalion of coaches, physiologists, physical trainers, physiotherapists and other professionals from the club and the national team where they work, these players hire a own teamwhich will focus only on the needs their.

“This is something that comes from basketball in the United States of America, where the work of all these assistants becomes absolutely essential so that the athletes can show the talent they have when playing at a high level”, explains the USP professor.

Despite so many advances, Zogaib understands that there are room to evolve further and develop players with even greater physical capacity. In the specialist’s view, the next frontier is in the base categorieswhich brings together the athletes teenagers🇧🇷

“If this preparation begins in childhood and adolescence, it is possible to think that these individuals will have a much higher yield when they become professionals later on”, he concludes.

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