Football, skeleton and the sports personality of the year

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan

The shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has just been announced ( and I hardly recognise anyone on it. I must admit that listening to the radio provides a similar experience for me these days. It seems I’m not quite as up on my gymnastics, swimming and skeleton as I might be (skeleton is one of the many strange events in the Winter Olympics – it’s the one where they hurtle down the slope of ice head-first on what looks like an elevated tea tray).

There’s only one footballer on the list: Gareth Bale. I was very surprised to learn that Bale is the first footballer to be shortlisted since 2009 when Ryan Giggs was not only nominated but won. I’m not sure if other countries have a similar event but I can’t imagine many places in which the national sport would be so significantly under represented. Indeed, Giggs is the only footballer to claim the award in the past decade.

I do not expect Bale to add to football’s tally. I think Rory McIlroy may be the early favourite while Lewis Hamilton’s world title triumph at the weekend may make him a contender. I’m not sure how big a following skeleton has in the UK so I probably wouldn’t put too much money on Lizzy Yarnold.

Last year’s winner of the Sports Personality award was Andy Murray (and a very worthy winner he was after his Wimbledon triumph) but he is not shortlisted this year so the trophy will pass to another sport.

Bale has certainly had a magnificent year. He’s settled incredibly well in Spain and looks every inch a star at Real Madrid, a club where Galacticos are expected to shine very brightly. For a sense of how good a player Bale is, just look at what’s happened to Spurs since he left.

He’s produced excellent performances for Wales too of late and I hope he gets the opportunity to display his talent at a World Cup or European Championship.

There’s been some speculation that Bale may return to England in the summer, possibly to Manchester United. He would be a great signing for Van Gaal but I can’t see him wanting to leave Madrid so soon and it would seem strange to me if Real were tempted to part with him at this stage.

The sale of Bale would surprise me but even more surprising was the discovery that tickets for the Sports Personality event, being hosted in Scotland this year, are priced at £45, £55 and £60 plus a 10% service charge. Who on earth is paying that much to go and watch Gary Lineker play some video highlights and hand over a few awards?

It would cost less to watch Bale play at the Bernabeu.

How fit are footballers compared to other athletes?

Ryan Giggs. Photo by: Paul

Ryan Giggs. Photo by: Paul

Tomorrow I’m running a 10k race here in KL. It got me thinking about fitness (sadly it hasn’t got me quite as fit as I would have liked to be for it) and in particular, how fit are footballers compared to other athletes?

There’s no doubt that the modern game puts a huge emphasis on fitness, it’s quicker and more physical than ever before. Sports science is now thoroughly embedded at all the top clubs and players have access to an array of specialists from dieticians to psychologists. Most also have personalised training and fitness plans.

Footballers often complain of the demands made of them, the need to play three games in a week quite regularly for instance. In the 2013/2014 season Christiano Ronaldo played 49 games for club and country including the World Cup, where he looked rather lethargic as part of a poor Portuguese side. Messi played 46 games including the World Cup and looked absolutely exhausted by the end of it. He did have to carry the Argentina side on his back for a lot of it though.

Those statistics cover a period of about nine months. Compare that with Andy Murray’s rather manic effort to qualify for the end of season tour finals recently. In a six week period between the end of the US Open and the start of the finals in London, Murray played 23 matches and won three titles. That averages out at a match every 1.8 days. Still feeling tired footballers?

The average tennis match at Murray’s level is at least 90 minutes long and often longer. Of course he’s also out there on his own, without ten teammates to help him. Find a video of him training, especially his winter sessions in Miami, and admire the intensity.

So there’s a case to argue that the top tennis players are fitter athletes than footballers. How about some other sports? Well we can probably rule out golf. And darts. And snooker.

Rugby is an interesting one. The intensity of international test matches for example is just amazing. The action is non-stop and it seems as though all 15 players are involved more constantly than all 11 on a football pitch. I think the physical demands of particular positions vary more widely in rugby but nevertheless these guys are seriously fit.

A couple of other sports that spring to mind are boxing and gymnastics. Boxing is probably the ultimate test of physical and mental stamina. Perhaps the hardest training I ever did was a boxing circuit class which I used to go to six or seven years ago (I avoided any prospect of actually being punched in the face).

To get a rough idea of how tough boxing is, try throwing punches in the air for a few minutes. Then imagine doing that for 12 or 15 rounds but actually hitting flesh rather than air. Remember too that the person you’re hitting is intent on knocking you out. I think boxers would find life as a footballer pretty easy by comparison.

I was woeful at gymnastics at school. My assessed floor routine consisted of forward rolls, inelegant backwards rolls and my preferred move, the sausage roll. Gymnasts combine so many elements of fitness though: strength, flexibility, agility, speed, and explosive power. Many footballers have adopted more gymnastic-style or yoga training routines, often in a bid to prolong their careers. Ryan Giggs is an excellent example.

Then there’s everyone from sprinters to marathon runners, rowers and cyclists. They tend to be quite fit. This sort of comparison across sports is not an easy one to make and is a bit like comparing different eras in football.

That said, I don’t think too many footballers have reached the limits of their athletic ability. It will be interesting to watch the athletic development of the game over the next decade or so. How much quicker will it get? How much stronger might players be expected to be? When will they stop complaining about playing three times a week?

Maybe I’ll be a little more sympathetic after tomorrow’s race.