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2 December 2015

Modern footballers are thin, primped and fast. I miss the tatty fatties

Modern players are not just super-toned and super-fit but super-fast. Slowcoaches are weeded out at birth.

By Hunter Davies

When Ireland won their play-off to reach the finals of the Euros next year in France, I was well pleased. I thought of waking up the tortoise to tell her the good news but decided it will be a nice surprise when she emerges in the spring.

With England, Wales, Northern Ireland and now Ireland in the finals, it gives most of us something to look forward to – such as boasting. They always produce a stat before these big events about the number of players in the competition from the different leagues. The English Prem is going to have loads, thanks to the four “home countries”, most of whose players play in England. It will prove that our Prem is the best in the world, oh, yes, no question, so pipe down La Liga and Bundesliga.

I was equally ecstatic when Hungary beat Norway in their play-off. They will also be at the finals in France – and I will get a chance to see again Hungary’s wonderful goalie, Gábor Király. He is so delightfully gross. Overweight, balding, aged 39, always wearing the most disgusting, stained, wet, baggy pair of grey trackie bottoms. He hardly tucks them into his socks, making him look even more like someone’s pathetic dad on a Sunday-morning kick-around.

He is, of course, not gross compared with normal human beings of his age – just in comparison with today’s impeccably manicured, coiffured, physically perfect, top footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo is the patron saint of the modern football man – perfectly toned in every way. In the Real Madrid dressing room, he has his own hairstylist, make-up artist, masseur and moisturiser. Or is a person who puts on your moisturiser a moisturiserer?

I was so worried when Real Madrid got stuffed by Barcelona 4-0. I feared that, in close-ups, we’d see Ronaldo’s fury make his fake tan run down his perfect cheeks, but he kept cool – well done, Cris.

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Király has had a long and fairly successful career, mainly in Germany, with spells in England at places such as Crystal Palace and Fulham. He started wearing sweatpants instead of shorts because the grounds, so he has said, were so hard. We do tend to forget how the pitches these days are as manicured as the players.

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Every team at one time had a Király – a player who was either scruffy and overweight or in some way lacking physical perfection. These days, you have to be thin – even goalies, who used to be allowed the odd extra stone. Look at David de Gea at Man United, Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea and Hugo Lloris at Spurs. If you can. When they turn sideways, you can’t see them.

Defenders were all hunks at one time, trained to terrify the children by just looking at them, like Tommy Smith of Liverpool who ate razor blades for breakfast. Philipp Lahm of Germany is only 5ft 6in and as scary as Peter Pan.

Modern players are not just super-toned and super-fit but super-fast. Slowcoaches are weeded out at birth. Teddy Sheringham scored lots of goals but I don’t think I ever saw him run. Jimmy Greaves also scored loads but hardly moved from the same spot.

There are some slightly overweight players still surviving, if only just. Charlie Adam of Stoke, one of my faves, has clearly been screamed at in recent years and lost a bit of weight – and a bit of flair. Phil Jones at Man United is probably all muscle, not fat, but he could clearly do with trimming down, if only to make himself less of a lump.

Goalies have also been able to get away with being slightly eccentric. Neville Southall in the 1980s at Everton did look a bit like Király looks today – dead scruffy. But he was made player of the year in 1985.

Among goalies, William Henry Foulke (1874-1916) takes the biscuit – or, more likely, all the breakfasts. He would come down early in the team hotel and scoff the lot, ending up at 24 stone. But he won two Cup finals with Sheffield United, played for Chelsea and got one cap for England.

Király has 101 caps for Hungary and will be aged 40 at the Euros. Look out for him. Hard to miss, really . . .

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State