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The Changing Shape of Football(ers)

At a recent game in Wales, one of the home fans remarked to me that he'd seen the visiting team arrive. His exact words were "Their centre-forward is the biggest player I've ever seen." This set me thinking about the changing shape, fitness and physique of the modern footballer.

It's often said that the modern game is very different to the one we grew up watching in the sixties and seventies. That's often most obvious at higher levels, where pitches are infinitely superior to the mud-heaps that were common on Match of the Day twenty-five years ago and where tactics and coaching methods have evolved; interpretations of the laws and the approach to physical contact - what is and isn't tolerated - has altered the game too almost beyond recognition.

But surely it's the players themselves who have changed most, and in this case at nearly all levels of the game. They're faster, fitter and generally bigger than their counterparts from the last century. At full-time professional clubs there are whole staffs of fitness coaches and impressive state-of-the-art gyms. Lower down the scale, semi-pro and amateur clubs obviously can't provide those facilities in-house, but the aspiring athlete will be doing everything to build up his strength and fitness in ways his forebears never dreamed of.

Published statistics back up the observation that males in the UK - not just sports-men - are changing - taller, heavier, larger chests. The fact that Mr Average 2017 is a "taller, more rugged muscleman" than Mr 1967 reflects a change in men's attitudes to their bodies and greater attention to how they look. In sports-men, it's also about performance, and the hours spent in the gym in building upper body strength and muscle have replaced older fitness techniques like running.

The extent to which modern approaches to fitness training alone account for the modern footballer's changing physique is open to question. Various reports and conferences have touched on the use of Image and Performance Enhancing Drugs (IPEDs) both in Welsh sport and in society in general. And surely we don't think that any young athlete has much trouble finding out how To buy Steroid Mixes? The ready availability of such performance enhancing substances - which are not illegal to use or possess, but are banned in certain sports - strongly suggests that they play a role. Much of the attention around this has focused on grassroots rugby but it would be surprising if it was confined to the oval-ball game - but in the absence of any surveys or studies in our game, we can only speculate.

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