To be able to compete at the very top level in any sport, it is no longer good enough to rely on just pure natural ability. Fitness levels are becoming crucial to success in professional sports and football players are having to adapt to new training and dietary regimes to be able to cope with the demands being place upon them.
Football is a sport that requires a player to be 100% focused for 90 minutes, as switching off at any time can cost your team victory. Therefore, having the energy levels to remain concentrated for the duration of time on the pitch is vital. An important component of any professional football player's physical fitness is their cardio-respiratory endurance and this is linked to the amount of running a player will perform during a match. To have the energy to complete these bursts of running, oxygen has to be supplied to the muscles being used and this delays the onset of muscle fatigue. In addition to this, strength, flexibility and speed endurance are required and these complete the physical elements of physical fitness for football. Good agility, power and balance are also key to the success of a football player's career and combined with the physical aspects above, make up the complete fitness package for a football player.
At the very top level, the fitness of a football player can match the very top athletes in the world. However, sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing require participants to be at the very pinnacle of human fitness whereas, even in the modern game, football players can and have been known to get away with not being in top physical condition. The Brazilian striker Ronaldo is an example of a player who, despite not being in good physical condition in the latter years of his career, still managed to perform at the highest level.
Having said that, the overall health of football players has improved significantly over the last fifteen years, with players eating habits and social lives coming under increasing scrutiny and advances in medical research and technology improving nutrition. This is one of the main reasons why the modern player is almost certainly in better physical condition than players from past generations. Drinking alcohol and smoking were almost considered part of the game in English football but this is now being frowned upon and forced out of the game.
There is no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the fittest football players of all time, playing with fantastic power, strength, speed, agility and balance in every match over the course of a 70 game season and rarely getting injured. Looking back over the last twenty years, Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf was still playing club football at the age of 37 and showed incredible physical durability, playing at some of Europe's top clubs. Going back even further, into the 1950's and 1960's, Englishman Stanley Matthews played at the top level until he was 50. It's no coincidence that Matthews was known for rarely eating meat or drinking alcohol, which helped keep him fit enough to play over three decades. Having said that, even Matthews would struggle to maintain the fitness levels of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has to go down as the fittest athlete that football has ever produced.
In the Future?
The above article was written in 2014. Undoubtedly there will be very more players in the years to come which will challenge the champions listed here in terms of fitness. Even a poll from a couple of years ago is starting to be dated. The poll by ESPN on the greatest soccer 'athlete' of all time, conducted in 2012, shortlisted Lionel Messi, Pele, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Pele being crowned the greatest.
- The ESPN Sport Science poll to determine the Greatest Athlete of All Time.
- Our discussion of the greatest ever football/soccer player.
- More about the sport of football