Alcohol in Football: How Much Does It Affect a Player's Performance?

Ross Edgley@@rossedgleyFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

LONDON - AUGUST 8:  George Best of Manchester United finds no way past the Fulham defence during a Pre-Season Friendly match between Fulham and Manchester United held on August 8, 1971 at Craven Cottage, in London. (Photo by Getty Images)
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Throughout football history there have been great players with a penchant for alcohol.

George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Brazilian legend Manuel Francisco dos Santos, are among those you may be familiar with. But how was it these players were able to defy both medical advice and sports science to go on to achieve great things, even with a hangover?

It poses the question, how much does alcohol really affect a player's performance?

Could it be argued alcohol has a recreational benefit that helps athletes relax? Maybe if clubs adopted a more laissez-faire approach to drinking, players would bond more and become more of a team. Or does the proven, physical impairment outweigh any sort of psychological benefit? If so, should a teetotal policy be enforced in every professional player's contract?

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 28:  England manager Fabio Capello arrives for the England Press Conference at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus on June 28, 2010 in Rustenburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Whilst science may lean towards the latter, a few notable real life case studies beg to differ.

Firstly, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, England manager Fabio Capello famously abandoned the dictatorial regime he’d imposed on the players during their two lackluster draws against the USA and Algeria. Instead before their crucial match against Slovenia he allowed the team a beer to calm their nerves.

Capello was quoted in The Guardian saying, "they were allowed to drink beer before the game, you can ask them. It's true. I changed something and used my imagination."

The result was a 1-0 English victory that saw them advance past the group stages—each with a beer in hand. Granted they were then beaten badly by Germany, but did that beer help them avoid another draw and an earlier flight home?

1978:  Nottingham Forest Manager Brian Clough leads out his team before the League Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium in London. Nottingham Forest won the match 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport
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Then there were the unique coaching methods of Brian Clough—a heavy drinker himself—who famously fueled Nottingham Forest’s 1979 League Cup final with an abundant supply of alcohol. Quoted in the Daily Mail, centre forward Garry Birtles recalls:

The night before the League Cup final against Southampton in 1979 we were blotto. We had everything we could possibly have wanted to drink. Bitter, lager, mild, champagne. There were people who could hardly stand by the time we went to bed. But Clough insisted on it. Archie Gemmill wanted to go to bed. He wouldn't let him. We were 1-0 down at half-time the next day, but once we sobered up we were OK. We won 3-2.

Finally, this article wouldn’t be complete if a legend of the game wasn't mentioned—the 1968 Ballon d’Or winner George Best, a player who was famously quoted as saying, "in 1969 I gave up women and alcohol. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life."

Ever flamboyant and capable of playing with a creativity which the game had perhaps never witnessed before, could it be argued he wouldn't have played with the same degree of freedom had he been a tee-total, well-oiled, disciplined, football machine.

There's no doubting Best was one of the greatest to play the game, but one person who believes alcohol was a hindrance to him and his talents was British broadcaster Michael Parkinson. Quoted in George's autobiography entitled "Blessed", Michael said, "the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been."

Is this true? And if so, how much can alcohol really affect performance?

Research conducted at the Department of Clinical Physiology, at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, suggests it can, and markedly so. They studied the direct effect that ethanol, alcohol, infusion had on the skeletal muscle in the legs of five healthy volunteers. What they found was, "following ethanol treatment, leg glucose uptake is decreased and leg blood flow is reduced, probably owing to a constriction of muscle vessels."

In theory, this means players who had a tipple the night before a big game would have both less energy and less oxygen being delivered to their working muscles—ultimately making the second half that much harder, with their legs feeling a little heavier than usual.

Next, alcohol's diuretic function and effect on hydration is historically well recognised. In fact, this dates back to as early as 1948 when scientists labelled it a potent diuretic following an experiment when it was discovered for every gram of ethanol consumed, 10ml of excess urine was produced.

Plus, of particular importance for any team playing under extreme hot or cold conditions, a laboratory test published in the Canadian Journal of Applied Sports Science took a group of young, healthy male volunteers and tested their body's ability to regulate temperature after consuming 2.5ml of alcohol per kilogram of bodyweight.

The subjects performed a three-hour bike ride in temperature-controlled conditions. Researchers concluded, "the study confirmed that moderate levels of blood alcohol can impair thermoregulation while performing mild exercise." Essentially revealing those who consumed alcohol were less capable of controlling their body temperatures.

Manuas, Arena Amazonia
Manuas, Arena AmazoniaJose Zamith/Associated Press

What this means is Roy Hodgson may want to avoid Fabio Capello's alcohol policy when England arrive in Manaus for the World Cup later this year. As reported by the Telegraph, "the rainforest region has two seasons: a hot, wet winter and then a hot, dry summer, with average highs of 30C (87F) and more than 80 percent humidity"—meaning even just a few beers to calm the team's nerves may come back to haunt them in such savage temperatures.

Finally, researchers Luke D. Villa and David Cameron-Smith from the Deakin University in Australia comment specifically on the neurological effects. In their article entitled Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery they claim, "alcohol has been repeatedly shown to exhibit a dose-dependent impairment of balance, reaction time, visual search, recognition, memory and accuracy of fine motor skills."

Whilst this may be true in large amounts, the exceptional dribbling skills and alcohol addiction of Manuel Francisco Dos Santos (aka Garrincha) doesn't seem to support that argument. Considered by some to be the best dribbler in football history, Dos Santos won both the 1958 and 1962 World Cup with Brazil and picked up the Golden Boot and Golden Ball in the 1962.

So, based on all the evidence should alcohol be banished from every professional player's diet and treated like a performance decaying tonic? Or is it a secret elixir that can be used to encourage team bonding, reduce nerves and allow players to play with the utmost freedom? To quote researchers from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland,

Whether or not alcohol influences exercise and sport performance remains contradictory. It is believed that alcohol has deleterious effects on the performance, although it may contribute to reduce pain and anxiety. The alcohol effects on sports performance depend on the type and dosage of alcohol, acute vs chronic administration, the alcohol elimination rate as well as the type of exercise.

In summary, it must be noted that alcohol, in large amounts, has sadly ruined many an athlete's career, health and life and in no way was the article intended to make light of that. But hopefully this article serves to look at the effects moderate intake can have on performance. Also, whilst I don't think any modern coach would advocate Clough's 1979 European League preparation, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol, in moderate amounts, could have some benefits.

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