Like Messi, most professional football players who recover from the coronavirus suffer from reduced performance for weeks. The impact of Covid-19 on top athletes is a little-studied topic, but some elite athlete testimonies are starting to highlight the challenge of returning to sports after Covid. The most notable case is probably that of Paris Saint-Germain striker Lionel Messi, who was infected in January 2022 along with three other PSG players.
Pulga missed the first three games of the year but returned to training as soon as they no longer tested positive for covid, two weeks after being infected. However, the performances of the seven-time Golden Ball left much to be desired after returning to the Parc des Princes. A few months later, he explained that this drop in performance was due to the symptoms that covid left him with (fatigue and breathing problems), which worsened with the resumption of matches. And his case will not be isolated. According to the first study of the effects of covid on football players, published on June 14, 2022 in the journal Physiological Reports, most football players with covid experience a decrease in performance for several weeks.
Three-quarters of players experienced prolonged fatigue
A study by the University of Essex (UK) followed the players of the Italian third division team: 13 of them contracted the coronavirus in the 2020/2021 season, 10 of which were analyzed in this study. They tested positive for covid within an average of 15 days and returned to the field two to four days after the first negative test. All infected players had mild forms of Covid-19, but a significant proportion still had some symptoms a month after infection: 77% of them complained of “general fatigue” for about 37 days and 54% reported muscle fatigue. This means that most of them have resumed their activities, although they still felt tired due to covid.
The physical performance of the players has fallen
This prolonged fatigue seems to have affected the game of the players. Their pre-infection performance on the pitch (measured with GPS during the 10 matches prior to their infection) was compared with their performance after their return. On average, these players have reduced their intensity during games by about 4% since covid. That is, they covered less distance per game and ran less fast. “We were surprised to see such an impact on their ability to perform high-intensity exercise. The results of this study suggest that symptoms of fatigue should be considered when deciding on the appropriate time to return to sports after the coronavirus,” concludes Michel Girardi, study author, in a press release. According to the study, these drops in performance were not caused by respiratory problems because the players’ respiratory capacity (as measured by spirometry) did not change significantly for the group of infected players (although individual drops were observed).
The authors clarify that these results need to be confirmed because their cohort consisted of only 10 people, and also because other factors (for example, the inability to train during the period when players have positive COVID-19) may have contributed to this drop in performance. But other analyzes seem to be heading in the same direction as this study. For example, The Economist analyzed the performance of 257 professional football players (playing in Germany and Italy) who contracted the coronavirus. They also had a significant drop in yield, which returned to normal about 10 weeks after infection. Therefore, it is likely that the effects of covid on high-level players will not be negligible and will need to be better taken into account to facilitate the return of athletes to the field.