Sat, 21 May 2022

The Africa Cup of Nations football tournament exerts a lot of physical stress on the players - making the work of teams' physios essential. That of Guinea opened its doors to FRANCE 24 a few hours before one of their matches to shine a light on this little-noted but pivotal aspect of the sport.

The hotel suite had been emptied of its furniture to make room for three massage tables, the bathroom was dedicated to ice baths and the bedroom was devoted to the body's post-match recovery, with cryotherapy suits spread out on the bed. A jumble of boxes was full of straps, creams, bandages as well as state of the art technological tools used to protect the fitness of Guinea players.

The team face Gambia in a hotly anticipated clash on Monday. But before that - ahead of their last group match that saw them lose 2-1 to Zimbabwe - the medical staff showed FRANCE 24 what they do.

"This room was supposed to belong to Kaba Diawara [the Guinean manager], but we completely redesigned the space so it was functional and comfortable for looking after the players," said Guinean head physio Bruno Da Cruz, who has worked with Guinea since 2015, except for an interregnum from 2018 to 2019.

"Whatever hotel we're staying in," Da Cruz said. "At the start of the group stage, we were in a base camp in Bafoussam, and they put the care centre 2 kilometres away from the hotel - so it was better to transform my room so we could accommodate the players there."

"It's a bit tricky sometimes, but if the players have to go fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes back for a recovery massage, that's useless," he continued.

The Africa Cup of Nations is well-known for putting players' bodies to the test with high temperatures, matches in early afternoon, pitches stretched to the limits of use, not to mention adapting to very different environments from the luxury cocoons the top European clubs have to offer.

"It's not a good environment for the players," Da Cruz said. "The heat is overwhelming, the food is terrible, mosquitos besiege us - you've got to adapt."

The trainers were very attentive to the players requesting their services a few hours before kick-off against Zimbabwe. Mohamed Bayo needed electrostimulation to treat his knee after taking a blow during the previous match. Aly Camara needed a more traditional massage. But for Aguibo Camara the medical staff deployed an "innovative treatment" using light and lasers to stimulate both the inflamed area and the liver.

"Guinea is the undoubtedly the only team using this treatment," said the head of the Guinea medical staff.

"This kind of care is important; we need it perform well," said Bayo, the 23-year-old striker, who was born in Clermont-Ferrand in central France. "It's important to take care of the body - it's our tool."

These pre-match treatments were also a way for the players to relax before matches - with many laughing and joking with the masseurs as they go through the procedures, while others prefer to stay silent, listening to music with headphones on.

'Like Formula 1'

"I like to compare the players to Formula 1 cars," Da Cruz said. "Here, we're at Ferrari, and they're racing cars, and their settings are reviewed at each pit stop."

"We get a lot of data and in light of it we're trying to fine-tune the settings as well as we can to optimise their performances," Da Cruz continued.

The perfectionist head of the Guinea medical staff has ramped up investment in state of the art technology to monitor the players. Guinea have bought some €160,000 in medical equipment over recent years.

"We use top equipment that even some Ligue 1 clubs don't have," Da Cruz said, adding that it makes a big difference in helping injured players get back to fitness.

Then a recording of surahs from the Quran burst forth, heralding the arrival of Guinea's top star Naby Keïta, whose pre-match ritual centres around a relaxation session to the sound of the Islamic holy text.

The Liverpool midfielder is used to top-notch care from his club - and was impressed with the equipment used by his national team. "It's a lot better than before; previously we didn't have all these machines," Keïta said. "Some people complain about the matches at 2pm, but we're ready to play for our country at whatever time - to make the country proud."

But the build-up to the Africa Cup of Nations was marred by controversy as big clubs were reluctant to let their players go in the middle of the season. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was one of the most vocal about this - lamenting that he was sacrificing some of his "best players" for a "little tournament".

Da Cruz said the fitness equipment is an important way to reassure the clubs: "We talk to the clubs a lot, in a spirit of complete transparency. We show them that the players aren't going to get hurt. There are inevitably tensions with the clubs - legitimate concerns about the challenges the players face - but we've done everything we can to communicate and reassure."

This article was translated from the original in French.

Originally published on France24

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