11 great footballers who didn’t train: King, Ronaldinho, Best, Kaiser…
Football fans sometimes think of professional players as super-humans capable of playing 90 minutes every day, but sometimes they aren’t even fit enough to train between games.
It often goes overlooked that some footballers put themselves through incredible physical strain to play week in, week out.
Here are some players who struggled to make it onto the training pitch, including a remarkable story from Brazil.
Cited by Thierry Henry as one of the best defenders he ever played against, King is often thought of as one of the greatest players England never really had.
Chronic knee problems meant King could not even kick a ball in the garden with his children, never mind train at Tottenham, but then he would invariably turn up on a matchday and put in a brilliant performance.
“It’s crazy that you can not train once all week and then come in on a Saturday and be the best player,” Harry Redknapp marvelled in 2011.
Kyle Walker on Ledley King: "He was a great, great player who taught me a lot. He didn't really train that much but was fantastic in games." pic.twitter.com/JwQWcEs9MY
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 21, 2017
Woodgate was team-mates with King at Tottenham, where they formed a centre-back partnership of what could have been for England.
An international at the age of 19 while with Leeds, Woodgate’s injury problems began at Newcastle and continued throughout his career.
Despite impressing at White Hart Lane, the defender admitted he had “no chance” of making Fabio Capello’s England squad for the 2010 World Cup.
“I haven’t given up,” he said. “But I don’t train all the time, as well, and he likes people who train every day, so, we’ll see what happens.”
King often spoke of how he was inspired by McGrath’s exploits at Aston Villa, where he won two League Cups and was named PFA Player of the Year despite debilitating knee injuries.
“I trained for the first few months I was there, but never again over the next seven years,” McGrath told FourFourTwo in 2007. “The Villa physio Jim Walker, who is more than a friend – a hero of mine – is basically the one that kept my career going. If I hadn’t had Jim on my side, I would have probably finished playing about four seasons earlier than I did.
“Jim created a regime where I just went in and did 10 minutes on the bike each morning and that was about it. Some days I would just have a bath. The games would look after my fitness. It was hard not to join in with the rest of the guys’ training, especially the five-a-sides, which I used to love. I’d just watch them and collect the balls. But the lads at Villa were brilliant: none of them moaned about it, they just accepted it.”
As one of the best players the world has ever seen, it’s fair to say Ronaldo was never put under too much pressure in training.
Even Gigi Simoni, who managed Ronaldo at Inter, told us he didn’t ask him to do the same things as other players: “I never thought that all players should be managed in the same way if someone is special – and Ronaldo was exceptional.
“I never asked him to run, he just needed to train and play with the ball, someone else would have run for him.”
And when Fabio Capello took over at Real Madrid in 2006, although Ronaldo turned up for training, the Italian found a player struggling with his weight and seemingly not in the mood to get himself fit.
“Look, he weighed 96kg [15 stone],” Capello told AS. “I asked ‘how much did you weigh when you won the World Cup [in 2002]?’
“84kg [13 stone] he said. ‘Can you go down to 90kg [14 stone] at least?’ And he didn’t…”
Yet Capello still names Ronaldo as the “best by far” of all the players he ever worked with.
He was so good, it was impossible not to fall in love with him, as brilliantly summed up in this passage by Sid Lowe in a tribute to the great man following his retirement:
‘A new arrival couldn’t believe his eyes during preseason one year, screaming “Run, you fat [expletive]!” at Ronaldo as he ambled about.
‘Ronaldo told him to piss off. “You run,” the Brazilian replied, “I don’t. I score goals.”
‘Five minutes later, Ronaldo had scored, and offered a cheeky: “That OK by you?” It was classic Ronaldo.
‘Even team-mates saw the logic in it. A smiling Míchel Salgado recalls players telling the coach not to force him to train: “Ronaldo would say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you two goals’ — and then he would go and get two goals.”‘
Like Ronaldo, Romario was so good that he managed to wangle favours others could not dream of. And there was no better example than in 1994 when the Brazilian famously convinced Johan Cruyff to not only let him miss training but be substituted early in order to go to the Rio Carnival.
“One time, Romario asked me if he could miss two days of training to return to Brazil for the carnival,” Cruyff recalled. “I replied: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow, I’ll give you two extra days rest compared to the other players.’
“The next day, Romario scored his second goal 20 minutes into the game and immediately gestured to me asking to leave. He told me: ‘Coach, my plane leaves in an hour.’”
Best’s attitude towards training – and football in general – is well documented. And in January 1972 he missed a full week’s training at Manchester United to spend time with Miss Great Britain instead.
Even the website georgebest.com, described as the ‘official platform to commemorate George’s life and playing career’, writes that as his drinking increased, ‘his training suffered and his appearances became less’.
Still, when you can score six goals in one game you can be forgiven for wondering whether you even needed to train…
Let’s just leave this one to Ronaldinho’s former PSG team-mate Jerome Leroy, who told SFR Sport: “Ronaldinho did not train at all on any day of the week. He would just turn up on the Friday for a game on the Saturday.
“That was Ronaldinho. I believe he tried to follow in the footsteps of Romario, who also went out every night, but did not have the same success.”
Leroy also told So Foot: “In the mornings, Ronaldinho would turn up in sunglasses. He would get dressed and go directly to the massage rooms to sleep. Players with his enormous talent are usually a little crazy.”
He might not quite be on Best or Ronaldinho’s level, but there is certainly a theme with talented players being afforded slack others are not.
In January 2016, amid some outstanding form from the German, Arsene Wenger explained the secret behind keeping him at his best: “Mesut, I gave him a one-week holiday during the international break.
“He doesn’t practise a lot, we rest him a lot between the games. He is a guy who once the basic fitness is there between the games, he wants to play.”
To call Kaiser’s tale a unique story would be something of an understatement, given we’re talking about the man once described as “the greatest footballer never to have played football”.
Kaiser was associated with 10 clubs throughout his career – including Brazilian giants Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama – except he never actually played, and did his utmost to avoid training by faking injury and paying youth players to clatter him. Mainly because he wasn’t actually a footballer.
“I wanted to be among the other players,” he said. “I just didn’t want to play. It’s everybody else’s problem if they want me to be a footballer. Not even Jesus pleased everybody. Why would I?”
It really is one hell of a story.
Neil Lennon compared McGregor to McGrath in 2017 after revealing the Hibernian defender doesn’t train.
McGregor, who was named Rangers’ Player of the Year in 2015, suffered two cruciate ligament injuries, but was described as a “warrior” by Lennon.
“Darren has had a long-term, ongoing problem with his knees,” Lennon said. “He doesn’t train and he didn’t train last season either, a bit like the Paul McGrath scenario, where he’s on the bike for most of the week.”
One of the few players to demonstrate flair and imagination as Leeds United languished in the Second Division, Sheridan was a cult hero at Elland Road during the 1980s.
As a result, the midfielder was somewhat indulged by manager Billy Bremner, who allowed the player Mondays off so he could recover from drinking sessions after the weekend’s match.
Howard Wilkinson was less than impressed when he took over from Bremner, especially when Sheridan had a drunken run-in with police, and he was soon shipped off to Nottingham Forest.
Leeds’ faithful may have been heartbroken, but it worked out well in the end.