Which Australian sport produces the greatest athletes? Part Five: Football

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Football requires a mix of speed, endurance and agility. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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    The final sport in our series is football, easily the most played sport of the five we’ve analysed. But does that have anything to do with the athletic prowess required to perform?

    Probably not, but it’s an interesting discussion point nonetheless. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013-14 participation in sports catalogue, outdoor football had the highest number of participants aged 15 and older of all of the team sports (438,800 participants), while indoor soccer was ranked seventh (218,800).

    Of all of the sports we’re looking at, football is easily the simplest from a rules perspective: don’t touch the ball with your hands, don’t trip your opponent, don’t touch the ball if you’re standing goal side of the last defender on the other team when it’s kicked to you. It’s more complicated than that, but not significantly so.

    Football’s beauty lies in the finesse required to play the game. As rugby league coach and fitness expert Rohan Smith said when we discussed the athletic requirements of football, “aside from cricket, football out does the other three codes as far as the need for co-ordination and execution of skill.

    “There’s lots of touches of the ball in multiple directions, and needing to use your head, chest and feet for ball control is not just unique, it’s remarkably skilful.”

    Agility is critical. Like Aussie rules players, footballers operate in a 360-degree environment. Cricket is remarkably structured, while the rugby codes play facing each other and can pass laterally or backwards. Football is completely open.

    “Football players need a quick first step, be able to start and stop on a dime, change direction constantly, all while controlling a ball with their feet,” Rohan said.

    “This is somewhat unique to football in the five sports we’re looking and doesn’t fit neatly with our categories, but I would say it’s largely an attribute of agility.”

    We see this play out with some regularity, with strikers and defenders embarking on battles of speed in which the ball cuts through a defensive zone.

    Strikers are quick, and all football players are required to have some semblance of straight-line speed. I wasn’t able to find any information on maximum speeds, but from video highlights, it is clear players that ply their trade as finishers can reach sprint speeds that many other codes would struggle to match.

    A lot of the activities of football players are quick adjustments from standing or slow movements like jogging to outright sprinting.

    According to American sports data company SportVU, midfielders can run an average of 11 kilometres a game across the two 45-minute halves. That’s more than the rugby codes, and gets close to what a key position player would put up during a 120-minute game of AFL.

    The athletic profile of the different position groups is significant. Rohan said many clubs consider their goalkeepers to be their best athletes.

    “Goalkeepers are required to stand, then jump, sprint, dive, leap and scramble. They have the highest percentage of involvements in the game that require all-around athletic performance.”

    These somewhat unique requirements of football lean against a player’s athletic prowess in the other categories. More than any other sport in this series, the collective subjective judgments of Rohan and I were difficult to place in the context of the other codes.

    Football players have significantly different requirements to the rugby codes and even Australian football where there is a requirement to have physical size and strength.

    Football needs wiry, quick-on-your-feet athletes; the average A-League player in the 2016-17 season weighed just under 76 kilograms – easily the smallest in mass of the five codes we’ve analysed in this series. Footballers are made of lean muscle, built to have a balance weighted more towards ease of movement than difficulty in being moved.

    The strength requirements of football players are more about winning position rather than physical domination, according to Rohan.

    “Football is more an isometric strength, where the other football codes require an ability to overpower, dominate and ultimately defeat an opponent.”

    besart-berisha-bruce-kamau-melbourne-derby-victory-city-a-league-football-2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Key Information

    Ryan and Rohan are making these judgments based on the highest level of domestic competition in each of the sports – except for cricket, where the Australian Test team seems like the more appropriate comparator.

    In this series, each sport will be ranked on key categories. We’ll reveal the final scores and the top sport at the end of the series.

    Endurance: the length of time an athlete is required to perform at their peak, in a game and over the course of a season.
    Power: how explosive an athlete needs to be, in both speed and strength terms, over and above the “resting” state of play.
    Agility: a measure of an athlete’s required evasiveness, ability to change direction and be aware of those around them.
    Speed: how fast is a player required to move around the field, both in sprints and general play.

    Stay tuned for the next instalment when we’ll reveal the final scores and name which sport produces the best athletes in Australia.

    The full series
    » Part One: AFL
    » Part Two: Cricket
    » Part Three: Rugby league
    » Part Four: Rugby union
    » Part Five: Football
    » Part Six: Final Results

    This series is sponsored by by POWERADE, fuelling rivalry through the POWERADE POWERSCORE. The Powerade Powerscore, developed in conjunction with the New South Wales Institute of Sport, allows you to compare yourself to mates and elite athletes.