Of fitness and endurance

Published : Jun 24, 2010 00:00 IST

Coming after gruelling league seasons, World Cup narratives are often dominated by injuries to key players. Fatigue is also a concern. But it is a marvel of modern sports science that players, even after punishing schedules, can be expected to go through a month of high-pressure football, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Coaching an international team is markedly different from managing a club side. The obvious difference is that England boss Fabio Capello cannot sell an error-prone Robert Green and buy Gianluigi Buffon. But apart from this, another critical difference that has emerged in recent years lies in the concept of a first eleven.

Fans of top European clubs can no longer name their team's likely starting line-up. For instance, Sir Alex Ferguson used 33 players over the course of Manchester United's 2008-09 Premier League season with only Cristiano Ronaldo and Nemanja Vidic starting more than 30 of United's 38 league games.

International teams, however, do not train together for the entire season, and coaches cannot therefore expect all their players to fit seamlessly into a tactical system. As a result, World Cups are often the domains of 11 reasonably well-knit players and almost an equal number of backups. However, coming as they do after gruelling league seasons, World Cup narratives are often dominated by injuries to key players, of which David Beckham's metatarsal in 2002 and Wayne Rooney's in 2006 are high-profile examples. This time around, the Chelsea curse is the major talking point, with Michael Ballack, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Jose Bosingwa and John Obi Mikel ruled out either entirely or partially from participating in the tournament.

Fatigue is another concern. Ten Inter Milan players are currently in South Africa, after a season that saw their club play 57 games en route to winning the Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League titles. It is a marvel of modern sports science that Maicon, who ran up and down the right flank in 48 games for Inter, for a total of 4477 minutes, or nearly 75 hours, can be expected to go through another month of high-pressure football where endurance is the key.

The same is true of Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi, who both made more than 50 appearances for Barcelona, which plays an extremely demanding style of football that requires every one of its outfield players to press high up the pitch to try and win back the ball in the opponent's half. Perhaps injudiciously, Argentina's fitness coach Fernando Signorini said in an interview with Catalan magazine Sport that Messi “has arrived at the World Cup tired, the damage is already done and it's irreversible.”

It is for this reason that players coming out of long spells in the sidelines can sometimes return rejuvenated at World Cups. Prior to the 2002 World Cup, injury had restricted Ronaldo to only 24 games in three seasons for Inter Milan. The Brazilian striker swept through Japan and South Korea like a goal-scoring whirlwind and took home the Golden Boot with eight goals. Paolo Rossi, who won the 1982 Golden Boot, played the tournament after spending the two previous years serving a match-fixing ban.

Keeping all this in mind, the teams that can best replicate a squad system gain a crucial advantage in international competition. In 2006, Marcello Lippi used his squad brilliantly, fielding each of his six strikers at different times and coaxing goals from all of them. Overall, 10 players scored in Italy's victorious campaign and five of its 12 goals came from substitutes.

How do the contenders in South Africa compare? Lippi's squad contains a number of his 2006 stars, all of whom are four years older, with suitably lengthened muscle recovery times. Of those, injured midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi are likely to miss the early games, leaving less experienced players a lot of responsibility.

Argentina's bench contains a gamut of game changers, with at least two out of Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero certain to start games in their tracksuits. Tevez started against Nigeria and put in a typically bustling performance that on another day could have earned him a hatful of assists. But on another day, Maradona can choose to rest him and deploy Aguero or Milito instead.

And despite Tevez's apparently boundless energy, he could certainly do with a rest, after a season that saw him make 40 appearances for Manchester City. In other areas, however, Argentina's squad seems undermanned, or at least untested, with central midfield backup for Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron very thin on paper.

Spain unarguably boasts the deepest squad, with an abundance of interchangeable talent, to the extent that Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, who would play a key role in every other national team on the planet, will almost certainly start on the substitutes' bench.

Were coach Vicente Del Bosque to opt for a single-striker formation, Liverpool's Fernando Torres would most likely drop out of the first eleven. With Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique the likely central defensive pair, Carlos Marchena, who has never tasted defeat in 52 international games, will also sit in the dugout. Goalkeepers Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes are similarly unfortunate, as contemporaries of the magnificent Iker Casillas.

How some other teams would love Spain's depth. England, forced by Gareth Barry's ankle injury into a choice between an off-form Michael Carrick and the renewal of the hitherto disastrous partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in central midfield, would have taken Fabregas, Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso in the blink of an eye. Having chosen to field Gerrard — who has shown remarkable reserves of energy — centrally against USA, England suffered in two ways. Defensively, it missed the cover Barry or Carrick would have provided for left back Ashley Cole's marauding runs up the flank. And in attack, it missed Gerrard's dynamism cutting in from the left flank and his chemistry with Wayne Rooney.

Even Brazil could do with backup for its attacking players. Were Kaka to drop a jar of peanut butter on his toes, coach Dunga will have no one of similar pedigree to call upon in his stead. Having ignored Ronaldinho's claims, he only has the hulking Julio Baptista, a squad player at Roma, who doesn't possess in any measure the quick feet and dynamism of Kaka. How Dunga would love to have Andres Iniesta or David Silva in his squad.

But beyond idle conjecture of this sort, it wouldn't be surprising if Spain employed full-fledged squad rotation at this World Cup. Del Bosque's men start their World Cup on June 16, five days after the start of the tournament. Were Spain to reach the final, it would play seven games in 26 days, as opposed to a team from Group A such as France or Mexico, which would play seven games in 31 days. Additionally, some of its key players aren't 100 per cent fit. Xavi is playing with a slight tear in his calf muscle, and Fabregas, Torres and Iniesta are all returning from injury. In the group stage, at least, Spain could rest them in turns and give the likes of Pedro Rodriguez, Juan Manuel Mata and Jesus Navas a chance to dazzle.

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