In football, as in life, it is often said that talent can only take you so far. So what separates the men and women at the pinnacle of their profession, those who have maximised their natural ability, from those who never quite fulfilled their abundant potential? Is it hard work and diligent training? Strength of mind? Iron-willed dedication? Support and good advice? Or do they resort to the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs?
Football, like most sports, necessitates a combination of physical and psychological fitness, technique and tactics. The complexity of the game is such that the relative importance of each of these variables can actually change from game to game, particularly as a player becomes older, gains wider experience and develops his or her talent.
Perhaps one of the reasons that football is played by so many is that the game requires no one specific gift to enjoy taking part. Some sports have traits that are unique to a few, such as strength and power for American football, height for basketball, speed for sprinting, or endurance for distance running. But not the beautiful game. Nevertheless, while it may not require any single, all-important attribute, football - certainly at the highest level - requires many aspects of physical fitness, not to mention mental strength and the intelligence to understand and adapt to different tactics and match conditions.
So how does one achieve all this?
FIFA.com traveled to Barcelona to ask four of the
game's most admired exponents, including two FIFA World Cup™
winners, what they consider to be the secrets to their success.
'Football is a very clean sport'
For Italy's swashbuckling full-back Gianluca Zambrotta, the accent must be on a combination of determination and a constant drive for self-improvement, while all the time avoiding the dishonest and dangerous 'easy option' of illegal stimulants. He said: "I think the most important values for a player to get to the top level are to have the willpower to get better every time and to work as hard as possible to get it. It is also important to be honest and know that cheating is not good, and can also be harmful for your health."
This disdain for doping is echoed by Zambrotta's defensive colleague and fellow FIFA World Cup winner, the erudite Frenchman Lilian Thuram. "It's a question of education, to teach the young players how to win without cheating," said the former Juventus centre-half. "Moreover, it's important for them to know that the ultimate price you pay is your health. It's not just that it's morally wrong, it's that you will have serious problems in the future if you use illegal substances. There are sportsmen who have died at 40 or 50 years old because of doping."
Thuram, however, is equally convinced that while complacency should be avoided at all costs, the beautiful game is never likely to become disfigured by doping on a large scale. "I think there is less pressure in football to use illegal substances than in other sports," he explained. "The reason behind that is because football is a collective sport so it's not so easy to see when a player is not performing at 100 per cent, and the pressure for them to improve is lower than in an individual sport, where it is quite obvious if a player is not at his best. I think that football is a very clean sport."
Family key for Messi, Saviola
This opinion is shared by Thuram's Barca team-mate, Javier Saviola, who was also quick to point out the doping controls and testing procedures that are in operation throughout the professional game. He said: "I think it's very difficult for a player to use forbidden substances because we are analysed very often and the controls are better as the time goes by, so it makes it really hard for anyone who plans on improving by those means."
Saviola believes that the key to success, and to avoiding such dangerous temptations, lies in humility and having "good family and friends to help stay away from bad company", perhaps referring to the fact that the vast majority of positive doping cases in football relate to 'recreational' drugs (i.e. those that do not enhance performance) such as cannabis and cocaine. This reliance on a solid and supportive family support network is also identified as crucial by the Argentina striker's fellow countryman, Lionel Messi. "I think that for a player to succeed at the top level, it is important that they have a family that cares for them and that supports them in the bad moments," Messi told FIFA.com. "Also, they have to be humble and have the desire to work hard to succeed."
While there was much wisdom in the views of this quartet's youngest member, the final word came from Thuram's voice of experience, with diligence, determination and a desire for self-improvement once again highlighted as the key to success. He said: "The most important values for a player to get to the top are, in the first place, to work hard, and then to have respect for his teammates and his coach. Then have the will to improve every day and the capacity to not only criticise himself, but to overcome his failings."