Football physiology: From 20-stone ‘Fatty’ Foulke to diminutive genius Lionel Messi


The late legend Johan Cruyff once claimed football is a brain game. To perform at the highest levels, players need to be able to make hundreds of potentially crucial decisions, often whilst under extreme mental pressure.

However, while many of the all-time greats have made performing on the pitch look entirely effortless, football at its core is a physical sport, with players required to maintain the highest standards under significant cardiovascular stress, often for more than ninety minutes at a time.

With the rewards growing ever greater, the incentive to optimise players’ performances on the pitch has grown exponentially, with even a slight advantage potentially proving crucial. 

Players have strict regimes to prepare them for the physical demands of the modern game

Players have strict regimes to prepare them for the physical demands of the modern game

As a result, the game has undergone a revolution, not just tactically, but also in understanding the role nutrition and sports science play in preparing players to be at their best on game day. 

It hasn’t always been that way though. Perhaps the first player to be equally as renowned for his appearance off the pitch as he was for his skills on it was legendary former Sheffield United and Chelsea goalkeeper William Foulke.

The stopper joined the South Yorkshire side just five years after their formation in 1894 and quickly became a favourite amongst fans at Bramall Lane.

Though it was his prowess between the posts that earned him a solitary England cap before the turn of the century, Foulke’s place in footballing folklore can instead be attributed to his lumbering physique.

Born during a period where the average man stood around 5ft 5in, Foulke’s height was variously reported as being between 6ft 2ins and 6ft 4ins, and by the time he made a £50 transfer to Chelsea in 1905, he weighed more than 20 stone.

The 20stone goalkeeper William 'Fatty' Foulke was one of football's first physical anomalies

The 20stone goalkeeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulke was one of football’s first physical anomalies

The man often cited as the inspiration for the ‘Who ate all the pies’ chant would call time on his career and step away from the sport in 1908.

A fledgling form of sports science was starting to enjoy greater influence within the game in the decades after Foulke’s retirement, but the almost religious adherence to a strict diet and exercise regime of nowadays was still almost a century away.

While perhaps not quite on the same level as Foulke, stocky footballers have remained a prominent feature of the sport in more recent decades, but research appears to indicate that they are becoming increasingly less common at the highest levels of the game.

A study conducted at the University of Wolverhampton in 2019 compared the body composition of players plying their trade in the English top-flight across five different decades between 1973 and 2013.

But research has shown that modern top flight players are becoming progressively taller and more angular than their predecessors 

Their research found that footballers throughout the years have steadily been getting taller, as well as more angular.

Interestingly, in addition to the height of the average top-flight player increasing by more than one centimetre every decade, the researchers found that players had been getting increasingly heavier throughout the decades, with four of the five successive datasets demonstrating an increase in average weight.

Though physicality is said to be less of a factor in the modern game, in order to best utilise their technique on the pitch players must be able to cope with the physical demands of playing at the highest levels.

Even Lionel Messi, arguably the most technically gifted player ever to grace a pitch, would find out the importance of physical attributes for success in the sport from a young age.

Lionel Messi (above) had growth hormone treatments as a child before his professional career

Lionel Messi (above) had growth hormone treatments as a child before his professional career

Already demonstrating a prodigal talent with the ball at his feet, the young Argentine’s burgeoning career was put in doubt when he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at just eight years old.

The man that would eventually lead Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar was regularly subjected to injections of human growth hormone to allow his body to withstand the demands of playing professionally.

Despite only reaching a diminutive 5ft 7ins by the time he was making waves at Camp Nou, Messi had developed a deceptive strength that would go on to serve him throughout his record-breaking career.

However, it is not just the physical conditioning aspect of the game that has developed dramatically throughout the years, as nutrition has taken an ever more important role in the average player’s regime.

Then-England boss Fabio Capello infamously enacted a series of draconian food laws during the 2010 World Cup, banning his players from enjoying butter and ketchup among other typical favourites throughout the tournament as England went on to crash out in the Round of 16 in South Africa.

Fabio Capello's draconian dietary laws made him an unpopular figure amongst players as England manager

Fabio Capello’s draconian dietary laws made him an unpopular figure amongst players as England manager

‘You English eat too much bread,’ Capello told his backroom staff as he explained his plans for their Rustenburg training base. ‘If there is no butter, then the players won’t eat so much,’ he said.

The move towards leaner physiques within the sport can at least partly be attributed to the improvement of not only players’ diets but also the facilities in which they train.

Professor Alan Nevill, who led the 2019 study, said: ‘Footballers of today have adapted to the modern game, and as a result, their body shape has altered. 

‘Modern players are ectomorphic, characterised by a lean, slender body, as opposed to the muscular, mesomorphic builds which were more common in the seventies and eighties.

‘A lot of this can be attributed to the increased quality of playing surfaces where footballers train and compete. Modern pitches are immaculate and well-maintained and not the mud baths that they used to be. 

‘Pitches used to get very heavy and soggy, particularly in mid-winter, which accounted for players being bulkier and more muscular.’

Of course, despite the heightened focus on physical attributes leading to a majority of modern professionals being ectomorphs, anomalies within the sport continue to exist.

Former Wycombe star Adebayo Akinfenwa's muscular physique made him unique among modern players

Former Wycombe star Adebayo Akinfenwa’s muscular physique made him unique among modern players

Just ask Adebayo Akinfenwa. After an unsuccessful stint in Watford’s youth system, the muscular forward took the path less travelled en route to a successful career in the sport, making his professional bow for now-defunct Lithuanian side FK Atlantas.

Despite playing in the UEFA Cup, Akinfenwa would soon return to the UK with Welsh club Barry Town and then embarked on a long career across the football league.

Akinfenwa forged a respectable career as a goalscorer with Northampton Town among others, but the 100kg striker would unexpectedly rise to international prominence when he was named the strongest player in the FIFA video games.

This status coupled with a series of viral videos from YouTuber KSI made the journeyman footballer a household name, and he retired earlier this year as Wycombe narrowly missed out on promotion to the Championship.

Akinfenwa was living proof that anomalies can still thrive, even as the sport trends towards physical homogenisation.



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