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EURO 2024

Ronaldo, Modric go to Euro 2024 showing age is no boundary for football’s modern stars

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Aged 39 and about to play in a record-extending sixth European Championship, Cristiano Ronaldo’s longevity at soccer’s highest levels almost defies belief.

Luka Modric is 38, still performing for Real Madrid and will be expected to provide the X Factor for Croatia at the Euros in Germany, which start June 14,

The best players are extending their careers for longer, despite the increased pace and intensity of the modern game.

Higher levels of fitness and stamina are being demanded of athletes, but that is being matched by ever-improving expertise in how to maximize performance.

“Sports science has had an impact on how we prepare the modern-day player in terms of diet, nutrition, lifestyle, training programs. We’ve moved out of the 80s and 90s with the increased level of professionalism,” Tony Strudwick, a sports scientist with more than three decades of experience in soccer, told The Associated Press.

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Strudwick has held prominent roles at Manchester United, Arsenal and England and is currently director of medical at West Bromwich Albion.

He worked with Ronaldo at United when the Portugal forward first established himself as one of the best players in the world.

“He just set himself up for success,” Strudwick said. “I said four or five years ago, knowing how professional Ronaldo was, he could play up to the age of 40. That was no problem.”

With his 40th birthday in sight, Ronaldo shows no sign of being ready to quit. And with the advancement of sports science, the longevity that the likes of Ronaldo and Modric are achieving could become the norm.

ATTITUDE

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It’s not so much that athletes have changed physically over the years — rather it has been a shift in mentality.

“We have seen a kind of evolution in professionalism as opposed to an evolution in genetics,” Strudwick said. “It wasn’t that players were unprofessional (in the past), they just didn’t know what they didn’t know.

“There’s a lot more scrutiny on players in terms of accountability.”

Improvements in player lifestyle is lengthening careers, with many using the services of fitness and conditioning experts to ensure they remain in prime condition even during the offseason.

Ryan Giggs took on yoga in his later years to help extend his career and allow him to play for United until he was 40.

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DIET

Many top players also rely on the services of private chefs who deliver daily meals that are nutritionally balanced, while also being of restaurant quality.

That’s in addition to what’s provided by elite clubs, which have nutrition departments to help players keep food diaries and provide them with diet coaching.

In the past, some players would have pre-match meals of steak. Much has changed, with some managers banning sauces at the table.

Rod Thornley, a masseur who worked with Manchester United and England, can remember when Italian coach Fabio Capello took charge of the Three Lions.

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“The first ever pre-match meal was just a massive bowl of pasta. No sauce, just pasta,” Thornley told the AP. “The lads were looking round going ‘What is this? We can’t eat this.’ And that’s all he offered. That was it.”

INJURY PREVENTION

Massage plays a role in avoiding soft tissue injury. Contemporary players will have several massages throughout the week at the training ground or at home.

“With the more exercise you do, the more tight your muscles become,” Thornley said. “You are affecting muscles, you’re affecting muscle mass, you’re affecting your buildup of tightness, your lack of elasticity in the muscle.

“It’s a huge part of keeping a player fit, keeping a player healthy, keeping them on the pitch.”

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Ice baths are also used to help recovery.

MONEY

For all the ambition of players to continue as long as they can, there is also a clear financial incentive at a time when the rewards have never been higher.

It only makes sense for a player to want to extend their earning potential. Ronaldo, for instance, is reportedly paid $200 million a year playing for Al Nassr in the Saudi League. He is the CEO of the money-making machine that is his playing career. It is something Strudwick calls the “rise of the entrepreneur” soccer player.

And it can apply to players much lower down the food chain than Ronaldo.

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“There is a big incentive to keep your career going,” Strudwick said. “An extra five years at the back end of your career sets up the modern footballer for a very, very comfortable future.”

DRIVE

In the case of Ronaldo, a remarkable career that has seen him win five Ballon d’Or awards for the best player in the world is no accident, according to Thornley.

They worked together at United, where Ronaldo won the first of his five Champions League titles.

“Ronaldo just had that mentality where he was just wanting to be the best at everything,” Thornley said. “He wanted to be the best player in the world from the second he turned up there. He was just one of those lads that you knew he would do whatever it took to be that person, and he did and he proved it.”

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-AP

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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EURO 2024

‘A superstar is born’ – Yamal’s history making moment of ‘genius’

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BY GARY ROSE, BBC Sport journalist at Allianz Arena

Every so often, a goal is scored at a European Championship that stands the test of time. It is remembered, replayed, and talked about for decades.

Marco van Basten’s angled volley at Euro 1988 is one. Paul Gascoigne’s individual run and finish at Euro 1996 is another, as is Karel Poborsky’s chip at the same tournament.

Lamine Yamal’s history making goal for Spain against France in the semi-finals of Euro 2024 can be added to the list.

With Spain trailing 1-0, Yamal curled a brilliant strike from outside the box into the top corner to send him into the history books.

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At 16 years and 362 days he became the youngest man to score in the tournament’s history – and had those watching left in awe.

“A superstar is born,” former England striker Gary Lineker said on BBC One. “It was the moment of the match, possibly the moment of the tournament.”

“Just incredible,” added ex-England striker Alan Shearer. “We’ve been talking about him all tournament and saying what a ridiculously young age it is.

“To do that, it’s just outrageous.”

The goal, which had fans inside the Allianz Arena and around the world gasping as it was replayed in slow motion, was all the more impressive because of its timing.

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This was at 1-0 down in the semi-final of a major tournament. It was a high-pressure moment, but one he handled effortlessly.

At no stage in the build-up to the heavyweight contest did Yamal show signs of nerves.

He was smiling and joking with his team-mates on the pitch in the hours before kick-off, and carried that confidence into his performance.

“We saw a touch of genius,” Spain boss Luis de la Fuente said of Yamal’s goal.

“We all need to take care of him. I would like him to work with the same humility and keep his feet on the ground, to keep learning.

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“He looks like a much more experienced player to be honest. I celebrate that he is in our team, that he is Spanish.

“We count on him and hopefully we can enjoy him for years to come.”

-BBC

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EURO 2024

‘Beginning of two legends’: Photos of Messi and baby Lamine Yamal resurface

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Messi and Yamal's mum

In 2007, a young Lionel Messi posed for photos with a baby in the dressing room of the Camp Nou in Barcelona for a charity calendar photoshoot.

Messi, who was 20, was already making a name for himself and would go on to become arguably the greatest of all time.

But little did the photographer know that the baby would also make waves in international football less than 17 years later.

Messi was bathing Lamine Yamal – the 16-year-old who is taking the European Championships by storm.

Lamine Yamal as a baby with Lionel Messi in 2007

His goal against France in the semi-final on Tuesday is one that will be talked about for decades.

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At 16 years and 362 days, the strike also made him the youngest man to score in the tournament’s history.

The long-forgotten photo of Messi and Yamal resurfaced after Yamal’s father posted it on Instagram last week with the text: “The beginning of two legends.”

The photos were taken by Joan Monfort, who works as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press.

The shoot came about after Unicef did a raffle in the town of Mataró where Lamine’s family lived, he said.

“They signed up for the raffle to have their picture taken at the Camp Nou with a Barça player. And they won the raffle,” Mr Monfort told the Associated Press.

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The assignment wasn’t a straightforward one, the photographer said.

“Messi is a pretty introverted guy, he’s shy,” he said.

“He was coming out of the locker room and suddenly he finds himself in another locker room with a plastic tub full of water and a baby in it. It was complicated. He didn’t even know how to hold him at first.”

Like Messi, Yamal went on to play for Barcelona, where he became the club’s youngest ever starter and goalscorer, as well as the youngest scorer in the Spanish league.

Mr Monfort said it was only when the photo started going viral online last week that he realised that the baby was Yamal.

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“It’s very exciting to be associated with something that has caused such a sensation,” he said.

“To tell you the truth it’s a very nice feeling.”

-BBC

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EURO 2024

Koeman proud after coming close to Euro 2024 final

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-Euro 2024 - Semi Final - Netherlands v England - Dortmund BVB Stadion, Dortmund, Germany - July 10, 2024 England's Harry Kane scores their first goal from the penalty spot REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman was feeling more pride than hurt after his side came tantalisingly close to reaching the Euro 2024 final, falling to a last-ditch 2-1 comeback by England in the semi-final on Wednesday.

Koeman said it was heartbreaking to lose a game where he thought his side were best, but felt Dutch fans should be optimistic about the future after his players showed an attacking mentality until the end.

“I’m disappointed about the final result because it started good for us,” said Koeman, whose team went 1-0 up after seven minutes thanks to a brilliant Xavi Simons strike.

But the Dutch went on to relinquish control in midfield against English players like Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, Koeman said, before then coming back strongly.

“The feeling was we were the better team overall in the last 20 minutes, we went on attacking more. And suddenly, there was that great goal,” he added, referring to Ollie Watkins’ stoppage-time winner.

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“And it was all over … that’s difficult to accept.”

Koeman said he did not agree with the decision to award the penalty that brought England level when Harry Kane was caught by the studs of Denzel Dumfries as he shot.

But the Dutch coach said his side could still have turned the game back to their advantage had they been more decisive.

“As a former defender myself, what could he do in that position? He tried to block the ball … To penalize that is to tell him we cannot play properly football,” Koeman said.

“That’s my personal opinion. We should be proud because we’ve achieved many things in these weeks and there’s no criticism after seeing how my player fought until the end.

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“We have fought like lions. We just needed a little more balance and the English team did it better than us, so congratulations to them.

“I have to thank my players because they believed in something and it was good to see that … Although now it’s too late. We can’t do anything with that feeling, but in the future we will come back stronger.”

Koeman said that he is already looking forward to the 2026 World Cup and believes that the Netherlands will reach it with a great mixture of youth and experience that should make them a power to reckon with.

“I believe our team are able to do more and there are also players who will join us in the future. Some people were not able to play because they were not fit,” Koeman said.

“We have worked in a proper way together, it was important and it gave us a path to follow. We have to improve some aspects as well but I think we were really close to the finals.

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“Great mentality … Team spirit … I wish I could see them playing in the final … but it’s not possible… And I feel so sorry about that.”

-Reuters

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