Africa Cup of Nations 2023 semi-finals: Which team has more gas?

Opinion Wednesday 07/February/2024 08:08 AM
By: Ricardo Guerra
Africa Cup of Nations 2023 semi-finals: Which team has more gas?
Three-time champions Nigeria face a South Africa side aiming to win their second Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title - but a first away from home following their 1996 triumph in Johannesburg - in the first last-four tie of the 2023 AFCON edition (17:00 GMT) in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday.
Hosts Ivory Coast have never won the title on home soil - triumphing in Senegal in 1992 and Equatorial Guinea in 2015 - but must overcome unbeaten DR Congo (20:00 GMT), also on Wednesday, if they are to reach Sunday's final.
In recent decades, the discipline of exercise physiology has made significant progress. As a result, many international football clubs have started incorporating its principles in their training methods, aligning with other sports like track and field, cycling, and weightlifting, which have always been influenced by exercise science.
During the second phase of the AFCON, where matches are played back-to-back, squads hoping to advance in the competition may need to apply this scientific research more than ever.
The Nigerians are coming from a victory against Angola, beating them 1-0. By contrast, South Africa fought a grueling battle against Cape Verde in the quarterfinals that went into overtime and was decided on penalty kicks.
In the other semifinal, Ivory Coast will play against DR Congo. Neither of these two teams played overtime in the quarterfinals. Of all the semifinalists, the South Africans looked the most physically exhausted and depleted after their match.
 In fact, South Africa are going into their match against the Nigerians with a huge disadvantage. Their attempt to recover in time to start the game on equal footing will be a gargantuan challenge.
During the second phase of an international competition such as AFCON, players are sometimes given only two or three days of recovery time before the next match. Therefore, implementing recovery strategies and controlling the players’ workload becomes paramount. The 2023 AFCON semifinals pose an incredible opportunity to apply the findings of exercise physiology to accelerate players’ recovery.
A squad may get by without using physiological recovery strategies when only one match is played, with plenty of rest time beforehand. But these strategies become essential when back-to-back matches significantly curtail the time for recuperation, and they are more important still when one of the teams in question played overtime while their opponent did not—precisely the situation that South Africa face when they meet Nigeria.
During one of the quarterfinal matches, some inexperienced sports commentators on an online platform mentioned in passing that two days was enough time for players to recover between matches. But following a highly stressful bout of physical exertion such as a football match, detrimental alterations to musculoskeletal systems and subsystems can be significant. Some of these physiological subsystems may take weeks to be fully reconstituted.
Nevertheless, implementing specific nutritional and supplementation strategies that precisely target certain physiological systems can help speed recovery. For instance, the hours following an exhausting football match are critical for replenishing glycogen, a fuel stored in the muscle that is vital for its function.
Think of glycogen as the gasoline that fuels skeletal muscles. Even an F1 McLaren will be rendered useless without enough gas to finish a race. Likewise, even a team made up entirely of superstars will sputter on the field if their glycogen reserves are depleted before the day of the match.
Recovery schemes should be chosen carefully depending on the phase of match play and other circumstances. For example, they can be used immediately before the start and the last half of overtime during a match. In tandem with supplementation, during the days following a hard-fought game, players’ training load needs to be reassessed entirely and strictly controlled according to exercise physiology principles.
What teams should avoid at all costs is to keep players in a state of perpetual fuel depletion. Therefore, managers should apply a tandem strategy: carefully controlling the workload in between matches while using all proper recovery protocols.
However, knowledge of this dual dynamic—load control and supplementation strategies—is not universal in the field, and even in countries with access to this knowledge, a given manager may impede the implementation of these tools. One would be shocked at what some management teams subject their own players to during the 48 hours before a match. This has been a problem for a very long time: anecdotes about absurd training loads before historic matches date back to World Cups played during the 1980s.
South Africa are going into this match with a huge disadvantage. Nigeria will be a formidable opponent: Not only will they be better rested, but they also possesses superior individual talent. To surpass these challenges, South Africa will have to dig deep into exercise science.
When they play Nigeria, South Africa should take care to conserve their energy. This means they should not deviate from their typical style by attempting high-tempo football — characterised by hard and deep pressing for extended periods of time.
Any squad that uses such tactics may be in for a long night, as we saw during the last World Cup, when Croatia, exhausted from their hard-fought victory against Brazil, met Argentina in the semifinals. Even though the Croatian squad’s high pace was exhilarating to watch, their failure to adhere to a more economical energy-related tactical scheme led to a devastating loss.
Instead, South Africa should implement Systemic Economical Cohesive Play (SECP) strategies that slow down the game and conserve energy. Controlling pace and managing the intensity of play during the game are critical characteristics of SECP, and specific tactical systems of play are more conducive to such a strategy. During the last World Cup, Morocco and the Netherlands successfully adopted some of these SECP schemes at times.
That said, football does not always follow a predictable script. The history of sports in general is full of black swan events. Who among us does not remember the “Hand of God” goal of 1986? On Wednesday, we will find out if the South Africans have a wizard on their staff or an ace up their sleeve that will allow them to miraculously recover. Regardless, the coming match will be an uphill battle for South Africa. But magic sometimes does make the impossible possible.
 [The views expressed by the author are personal]
Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist working with professional soccer teams. He has a Master of Science degree in sports physiology from Liverpool John Moores University. In 2015, he was the exercise physiologist of Olympique de Marseille when they reached the final of the French Cup against PSG. Ricardo holds the highest coaching license of the Football Association (England) and a UEFA license.   He can be contacted at [email protected].