Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira is learning to play the piano, La Liga clubs are facing off on PlayStation and Atalanta’s Robin Gosens has been revising for exams in psychology. Yet as thousands of footballers, from the highest levels to the lower leagues, remain on lockdown while coronavirus spreads across Europe, all of them are tasked with keeping themselves fit, as well as entertained.
“Everyone needs to be ready so that when the health advice says resume, we can resume straight away,” Emmanuel Orhant, medical director of the French Football Federation (FFF), said.
Nobody knows when that will be and with the global death toll from coronavirus passing 13,000 on Saturday, there is little appetite yet even to address the question. But within football, the absence of a deadline only enhances the sense of urgency. In theory, the season could restart in a matter of weeks and clubs are determined to be ready. “Players may even need to get their summer break in now,” Brighton striker Glenn Murray said. “We might finish the 2019/20 season and then roll into 2020/21 without any break at all.”
Asked if the players would accept that scenario, Murray said: “We don’t have any choice.” It means fitness coaches and club doctors are creating week-to-week conditioning programmes, personalised for individual players, explained through Whatsapp and Skype, and dependent on both technology and trust. “Every one of our players has been given the guidance they need from our coaches, nutritionists and doctors,” Real Betis head of medical Jose Manuel Alvarez said. “It is up to them to take it.”
Betis, who sit 12th in La Liga, have divided their squad into groups depending on physical characteristics, with one coach assigned to each. Devices then send data on fatigue, sleep, pain and even moods while players submit reports to the doctors on their weight and temperature, and to the fitness department regarding targets achieved.
“Players know if they don’t do their job they will be at a clear disadvantage against their teammates when normal training resumes,” Alvarez says. In that sense, they are given no excuses. Many players already have gyms at home but club owners have paid thousands to ensure those without have all the equipment they need. “A football player’s mechanics are precise, complex and sophisticated,” Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud said. “And they require almost daily maintenance.” Yet many clubs believe there is more to it than bikes and treadmills.
In Germany, Bayern Munich held their first ‘cyber-training’ session on Wednesday, when the players worked out through video-conference and then stayed online for an almost an hour to catch up. In France, Lyon have told their players to rest until March 24, while in Spain, Atletico Madrid have done tactical work, with video meetings held between players and coaches to reinforce key messages.
Atletico are also particularly stringent on diets. Like most clubs, they deliver meals devised by their nutritionists but players also choose between options for lunch and dinner, which they then eat at the same time as their teammates.
Self-discipline will not come easy to some. “Of course some players are better than others at handling this situation,” Jonathan Barnett, agent of Gareth Bale and Stella Group, said. “Players are human beings too and at the moment they’re very frustrated.”
Much will depend on personal circumstances. Lockdown can either offer the chance to spend more time with family or leaves family far away and unusually difficult to reach. Inter Milan’s Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku is unable to see his mother, who has high-risk diabetes, while Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic broke self-isolation rules when attempting to visit his girlfriend in Serbia. “Some of our foreign guys have missed the opportunity to go home,” Brighton’s Murray said. “It’s extremely difficult for them.”
Older players like Murray, who is 36, also feel the frustration of time being wasted. “It’s made me more determined to play as long as I can,” Murray said.
And for those where football has forever been a way of life, boredom can quickly take hold. “It’s so strange not being able to train,” AC Milan goalkeeper Asmir Begovic said last week. “You try to do other things but there’s only so much Netflix you can watch.”
More generally, there seems to be an acceptance that no matter how thorough the programmes, players will return considerably less fit and far more prone to injury. Philippe Piat, president of FIFPro, which represents professional players worldwide, said. “The doctors say 15 days off needs 15 days of training so what will it take if there are three weeks off? They were clear: don’t be surprised if there are injuries.”
“The risk of injury is something we really do expect,” said Betis doctor Alvarez. “They will never reach the level of a normal training session, that’s obvious. It’s a strange and completely new situation for everyone.”
Brighton’s Glenn Murray, who is 36, feels the frustration of time being wasted. (Paul Hazlewood / brightonandhovealbion.com)