Wednesday 27 February ~
Most of us like fat footballers. Partly it's because they look like ordinary spectators who have somehow conned their way into playing for the team, partly it's the perception that they have gamely overcome an extra handicap – possibly glandular, more likely a lifelong addiction to certain forms of carbohydrate – to succeed as sportsmen. These days, there's also the fact that they are perceived to be a rarity. Footballers used to be much more varied in shape – there were short ones and frail ones as well as fatties. Now, when players are often expected to run as much as eight miles in a match, they're commonly presumed to be tall and muscular. Juande Ramos, however, saw things differently when he replaced Martin Jol as Spurs manager.
As we said on February 14, the new Spurs fitness coach Manuel Alvarez claimed that the squad were 100 kilos overweight when he arrived. His dismay even led him to photograph the foods available at the canteen. Tom Huddlestone was the first player to be put on a weight loss programme and credits it with having saved his career at the club. And the League Cup victory has since vindicated the new methods. Paul Robinson joined the chorus of approval for the new regime. In a sombre interview for Sky TV reminiscent of a former gang member confessing to involvement in a range of crimes, he admitted that he had let himself go, blaming his relatively poor physical condition for a series of crucial mistakes that led to him being dropped for the clearly less capable Radek Cerny.
A question that wasn't put to Robinson, but might have occurred to anyone watching, was why he had allowed his physical condition to deteriorate so. The answer to that relates to a more general attitude that many professional sportsmen in the UK take towards what they do for a living. Once it's been proven that have enough talent to succeed, they often coast along without giving much thought to how they might improve. In the case of football, it's partly an effect of the fact that there are a huge number of full-time clubs in England, more than any other country in the world with the possible exception of Brazil. Players who wouldn't be considered good enough or dedicated enough to make it in Germany or Spain, where there are half the number of professional clubs, can maintain a career without overly exerting themselves. Now, however, there are far fewer British players than ever before at the top level. Their replacements from overseas are not in the main more talented – as Florent Malouda points out, it's just that they've grasped that resisting the lure of KFC buckets can make the difference between success and failure.