Ronaldo, Pogba's actions highlight two key trends in top-flight football

France's Paul Pogba (Photo: Reuters)
Much attention has been focused on the impact of Coca Cola’s shares after Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo replaced a bottle of Coke with water during his press conference. Less attention has been devoted to the fact that Heineken’s shares jumped after French star Paul Pogba moved a bottle of Heineken beer during his press conference saying it clashed with his religious beliefs.

Both incidents point to two trends in world football that were very much on display in Euro 2021.

The first is the extreme focus on fitness in football in particular and sport in general of which Ronaldo has long been a role model. This is, ironically, very much the result of the tidal wave of corporate money that has washed into top-level sports making footballers millionaires almost overnight. Yesterday’s loose-living footballer blessed with an abundance of natural talent – think Maradona, Best, Gascoigne – has been replaced by a disciplined fitness fanatic. But where the trio above flamed out on drug and alcohol abuse, Ronaldo is still going strong at age 36 (as his second goal against Hungary the other night can testify). He’s achieved that not by drinking Coke or junk food and snorting coke at nightclubs.

His regimen of denial is what every serious footballer follows today but Ronaldo has raised it to another level. In his 2015 autobiography Leading, the legendary Manchester United football manager Alex Ferguson, under whom Ronaldo matured from promising youngster to superstar between 2003 and 2009, wrote that Ronaldo set new standards in discipline by eating carefully and following a strict sleep regimen – apart from the iron workout regimen on pitch and gym. As he ages and realised he’ll be wanting for speed, for instance, Ronaldo ensures that he keeps his weight 2 kg lighter than the norm.

That is why soft drinks, even non-sugar based, form no part of his diet and that’s the message he was trying to transmit to other youngsters. Footballers, like many top players in other sports (including chess) have long followed a thumb rule for their diet: 60 per cent carbs, 30 per cent protein, 10 per cent fat. Only Formula 1 drivers and jockeys have to starve like haute couture models to keep their weight down for obvious reasons. But for all, pastries, candy, soft drinks, chips and the like are strictly forbidden (Martina Navratilova indulged her sweet tooth with a tiny slice of chocolate pastry only after she won a Grand Slam tournament). It’s the kind of diet that ensures that many sportspeople last much longer at the top than before (Federer and Nadal being stellar examples). Only rarely does the iron regimen result in the kind of tragic collapse by Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen in the match against Finland. 

Interestingly, footballers are allowed a bottle of beer or two glasses of wine (preferably red) on their days off. Ronaldo abstains from this temptation as well. But the Pogba-Heineken saga concerned a different issue in world football. His pointed gesture highlighted the lack of cultural empathy in a sport that is more multicultural than any other – a fact reflected in the 1.3 per cent rise in the brewery’s stock price a day later.

Pogba was speaking for his many Muslim colleagues who are playing in European teams – France, England, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey to name a few. In the domestic leagues, where an even larger number of Muslims turn out, administrations have been sensitive enough to religious sentiments to replace the customary Man of Match champagne magnum with a rosewater beverage (it looks a bit like Rooh Afza) when a Muslim player wins the award. UEFA, which outwardly has an energetic campaign against discrimination, could surely have displayed some sensitivity there. The bottle on display was a zero alcohol product to be sure, but this is not what makes Heineken its profits.

Though UEFA has not plaintively requested players not to move bottles during press conferences (Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli did a Ronaldo two days later) because Heineken and Coke (in their “zero” avatars) are major tournament sponsors. Ronaldo’s gesture won him many plaudits. Pogba’s a fair amount of opprobrium. But both messages are critical for sports fans around the world.

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