In recent decades, the discipline of exercise physiology has made significant progress. As a result, many international soccer clubs have started incorporating its principles in their training methods, aligning with other sports like track and field, cycling, and weightlifting, which have always been influenced by exercise science. During the second phase of the African Cup, where matches are played back-to-back, squads hoping to advance in the competition may need to apply this scientific research more than ever.
The Nigerians are coming from a victory against Angola, beating them with a score of 1 to 0. By contrast, South Africa fought a grueling battle against Cape Verde in the quarterfinals that went into overtime and was decided on penalty kicks. In the other semifinal, Ivory Coast will play against Congo. Neither of these two teams played overtime in the quarterfinals. Of all the semifinalists, the South Africans looked the most physically exhausted and depleted after their match. In fact, South Africa is going into their match against the Nigerians with a huge disadvantage. Their attempt to recover in time to start the game on equal footing will be a gargantuan challenge.
During the second phase of an international competition such as the African Cup, players are sometimes given only two or three days of recovery time before the next match. Therefore, implementing recovery strategies and controlling the players’ workload becomes paramount. This year’s African Cup semifinals pose an incredible opportunity to apply the findings of exercise physiology to accelerate players’ recovery.
A squad may get by without using physiological recovery strategies when only one match is played, with plenty of rest time beforehand. But these strategies become essential when back-to-back matches significantly curtail the time for recuperation, and they are more important still when one of the teams in question played overtime while their opponent did not—precisely the situation that South Africa faces when they meet Nigeria on Wednesday for the semifinal of the African Cup.
During one of the quarterfinal matches, some inexperienced sports commentators on an online platform mentioned in passing that two days was enough time for players to recover between matches. But following a highly stressful bout of physical exertion such as a soccer match, detrimental alterations to musculoskeletal systems and subsystems can be significant. Some of these physiological subsystems may take weeks to be fully reconstituted.
Nevertheless, implementing specific nutritional and supplementation strategies that precisely target certain physiological systems can help speed recovery. For instance, the hours following an exhausting soccer match are critical for replenishing glycogen, a fuel stored in the muscle that is vital for its function. Think of glycogen as the gasoline that fuels skeletal muscles. Even an F1 McLaren will be rendered useless without enough gas to finish a race. Likewise, even a team made up entirely of superstars will sputter on the field if their glycogen reserves are depleted before the day of the match.
Recovery schemes should be chosen carefully depending on the phase of match play and other circumstances. For example, they can be used immediately before the start and the last half of overtime during a soccer match. In tandem with supplementation, during the days following a hard-fought game, players’ training load needs to be reassessed entirely and strictly controlled according to exercise physiology principles.
What teams should avoid at all costs is to keep players in a state of perpetual fuel depletion. Therefore, managers should apply a tandem strategy: carefully controlling the workload in between matches while using all proper recovery protocols.
However, knowledge of this dual dynamic—load control and supplementation strategies—is not universal in the field, and even in countries with access to this knowledge, a given manager may impede the implementation of these tools. One would be shocked at what some management teams subject their own players to during the 48 hours before a match. This has been a problem for a very long time: anecdotes about absurd training loads before historic matches date back to World Cups played during the 1980s.
South Africa is going into this match with a huge disadvantage. Nigeria will be a formidable opponent: Not only will they be better rested, but they also possess superior individual talent. To surpass these challenges, South Africa will have to dig deep into exercise science.
When they play Nigeria, South Africa should take care to conserve their energy. This means they should not deviate from their typical style by attempting high-tempo soccer—characterized by hard and deep pressing for extended periods of time. Any squad that uses such tactics may be in for a long night, as we saw during the last World Cup, when Croatia, exhausted from their hard-fought victory against Brazil, met Argentina in the semifinals. Even though the Croatian squad’s high pace was exhilarating to watch, their failure to adhere to a more economical energy-related tactical scheme led to a devastating loss.
Instead, South Africa should implement Systemic Economical Cohesive Play (SECP) strategies that slow down the game and conserve energy. Controlling pace and managing the intensity of play during the game are critical characteristics of SECP, and specific tactical systems of play are more conducive to such a strategy. During the last World Cup, Morocco and the Netherlands successfully adopted some of these SECP schemes at times.
That said, soccer does not always follow a predictable script. The history of sports in general is full of black swan events. Who among us does not remember the “Hand of God” goal of 1986? On Wednesday, we will find out if the South Africans have a wizard on their staff or an ace up their sleeve that will allow them to miraculously recover. Regardless, the coming match will be an uphill battle for South Africa. But magic sometimes does make the impossible possible.
Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist working with professional soccer teams. He has a Master of Science degree in sports physiology from Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several football clubs in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. In 2015, he was the exercise physiologist of Olympique de Marseille when they reached the final of the French Cup against PSG. Ricardo holds the highest coaching license of the Football Association (England) and a UEFA license. He has traveled extensively worldwide, collecting data and quantifying the physiological capacity of soccer players from various countries. The physiologist is a Ph.D. candidate and the author of an upcoming book about Brazilian soccer. His articles have appeared in more than five languages across multiple news organizations.
He can be contacted at email@example.com.