On Sunday February 5, Egypt will stand at the edge of history. The Pharaohs are already the most successful country to ever compete at the African Cup of Nations with seven wins and after overcoming fellow semi-finalists Burkina Faso they now have the chance to make it eight wins in their ninth final; another record.
As any serial champion will attest, the challenges that come with keeping standards high and pushing for more glory can often be greater than the initial struggles to secure the first victory in a sequence, especially in international football. Players come and go, generations shift and the level of quality in the national talent pool ebbs and flows, but this year Egypt have taken steps to ensure that their team is better prepared than ever to make the most of their potential in Gabon.
The secret ingredient to their winning formula so far has come from their DNA, or more accurately, the scanning and analysis provided by DNAFit, a UK-based genetics firm that specialise on trying to give athletes and sports teams an edge based on their genetic markers. Egypt are the first football team to make their collaboration with the company public – the identities of other clients at club level in the Premier League and in Europe remain confidential.
However, their association with other leading sportspeople is well known. They have worked with Olympic Gold medalist Greg Rutherford and South African rugby union international Bryan Habana, as well as individual footballers, including Bryan Ruiz, Glen Johnson and Ashkan Dejagah.
“What DNAFit does is provide an extra layer of detailed information that teams have never had before,” founder and CEO Avi Lasarow told Squawka, and it is the way in which managers, coaches and team doctors have used this information that has been key for Egypt.
The goal is to tailor training and nutrition to suit the unique genetic markers of every single squad member in order to reduce their risk of injury, improve recovery time and enhance both their physical and mental performance. All it takes is a swab sample and the scientists can get to work in the lab, analysing the genetic material to reveal the hidden attributes that would otherwise go unnoticed by their coaching and medical staff.
“The DNA testing work means we now have a better understanding of our players and their individual needs than ever before,” said Aboul Ela, Egypt’s team doctor. “Which is of critical importance during a long tournament such as the African Cup of Nations.”
A major international tournament presents its own problems for teams to deal with, especially in a competition that falls during the regular club season, bringing their usual training regimes to an abrupt pause.
“The challenge for national teams, especially at the African Cup of Nations, is that they don’t have much time to work with these guys or control their environments because of their schedule,” said Andrew Steele, DNAFit’s head of professional sport and fitness.
“When they are with the national team they hopefully have a better focussed training regime or nutrition plan, or a better understanding of the nuances from player to player. Success in sport is made up on thousands upon thousands of small changes. Hopefully we play our role in that.”
Lasarow added: “We have contributed to success in the short-term but it’s never been about a quick win. It’s about maximising the potential of individuals over a period of time.
“That includes helping to educate the players on how they should be looking at food. It’s not just about a chef cooking them the right macro-nutrients, we’re actually giving them a composition of what their plates of food should look like based on their genetics.”
On the physical side Steele explained how specific genetic marker s can identify how predisposed to injury certain players are, particularly when it comes to connective tissue injury – a growing concern in a sport where knee and ankle ligament ruptures have become increasingly common as football has become faster and even more intense in recent years.
DNA analysis can also help to measure a player’s rate of recovery with greater accuracy, information that a team can use to better plan training schedules and alter the intensity of sessions in order to prepare an individual for action and keep them at a consistent level.
“It’s all about small tweaks on the training and nutrition sides,” said Steele. “What’s normal training for that position and that player, and where their genetic response lies so that they can get the most out of the training they do.
“Whether they’re higher or lower responders to carbohydrates and fats, whether they might be lactose intolerant – it all becomes very meaningful when you suddenly add this into the whole holistic package.”
Lasarow added: “The players have great energy levels, they are feeling great and psychologically it has done them wonders. They have embraced it and they identify too that personalisation is the way forward.”
Ex-Chelsea forward Mohamed Salah is the undoubted star of the Egyptian squad given his form at club level this season with Roma, while Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny and Hull City wing-back Ahmed Elmohamady are two players with current Premier League ties. However, it is veteran goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadary who, at the age of 44, is fast becoming the face of the team at this tournament.
According to Didier Drogba, he is the greatest opponent the Ivorian striker ever faced at international level and he was again the hero between the sticks in the semi-final shootout that sent the Pharaohs through to face Cameroon in the final decider, at the expense of Burkina-Faso.
“When you get older, it becomes more and more important to use sports science to do less but do what you are doing really well,” said Steele, a former Olympic 400 metres runner himself, who continued competing in his own sport at a high level having passed his peak age.
“He’s not going to be able to do the same training loads that he did when he was 21 so we need to make sure the stuff he does do is right for him. That’s where the genetic information comes in.”
In addition to helping Egypt to target how best to train and feed their squad, DNAFit have also tried to look deeper into the psychological aspects and the game and the additional mental pressures that come with trying to win a major tournament.
“We’ve done some work with the military looking at stress genetics,” said Lasarow. “Our project looked at soldiers in high risk environments and help them with how to deal with stress and put in stress prevention measures into place, and we shared that with Egypt.
“From a football side of things, how people deal with stress on the field, such as when you get to the penalty shootout, that’s very, very relevant.”
Despite their historical success at the African Cup of Nations, Egypt failed to even qualify for the last three tournaments in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Their win on penalties over Burkina-Faso was a testament to the mental fortitude of this year’s squad and ability to deal with the stress of spot kicks.
“It is changing the types of treatments we are giving our players, down to the correct deployment of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories based on their personal genetic make-up,” said Ela. “Playing six tough matches in just 20 days means that recovery speed is crucial, and the personalised method informed by DNA testing gives us the best chance of achieving this.”
The Egyptian Football Association are now planning on expanding their genetic testing programme to all of their teams and have encouraged the country’s top clubs to follow their lead, including Al Ahly and Zamelek; currently first in the Egyptian Premier League and the runners-up in the 2016 African Champions League, respectively.
With DNAFit already working with some of the top clubs in European football, Lasarow was bullish in his prediction for how important genetic profiling could become in the game.
“The era for personalisation is here,” he told Squawka. “If clubs do not start deploying this into their strategies and practical training they are going to fall behind for sure. Let’s hope that Egypt win this weekend!”
Whatever the future holds, talk of genetics and DNA being brought onto the training field and into the club canteens will always sound like science-fiction turned fact to some. Yet regardless of whether the Pharaohs reign again in Gabon, and secure a record eighth AFCON title, it seems that the battle to find the next big competitive advantage for clubs to lord over their rivals at the top of the game is only set to run deeper.
The organic code that makes players who they are as people could, in the years to come, prove to be the key to how teams and coaches can help them to realise their full potential as footballers.
DNAFit also offer genetic testing to members of the general public for fitness, health, diet and sport. More information on their services and how to order a DNA test can be found at DNAFit.com.