Genetics of elite footballers

Thursday, June 14, 2018. Author Geraldine Campbell

Genetics of elite footballers

With the FIFA 2018 World Cup starting in Russia today, we'll focus on the science of the ‘beautiful game’ of football (or soccer).

Last year, during the end of the qualification rounds for this year’s World Cup, the Scottish National team manager, Gordon Strachan, blamed his team’s failure for narrowly missing out on qualification (yet again) on ‘genetics’. The news article is one of the top results when you search ‘genetics and football’!

While Strachan’s comments seem like a lame excuse, the question remains: what role does genetics actually play in successful footballing performance? [Sorry Gordon, height is not the key determinant of footballing success. The Netherlands didn't qualify for Russia either, and they have the world's tallest average height.]

Researchers have studied elite athletes from several sports seeking to identify the genetic variants that allow them to compete at the highest level. As the world’s most popular sport with over 4 billion followers across the globe, football was clearly a focus for the researchers, and two genes of particular interest are ACE and ACTN3.

Are you a footballing ACE?

The ACE gene codes for Angiotensin-I Converting Enzyme (ACE), which controls the production of angiotensin II – a hormone that constricts your blood vessels. The D allele of the ACE gene correlates with better strength performance, and D allele carriers have higher levels of angiotensin II in their circulation.

By contrast, I carriers produce less angiotensin II and therefore may experience less vasoconstriction. This may be beneficial for endurance activities because it allows a greater supply of oxygenated blood to reach exercising muscles. It’s no surprise, then, that the II genotype is found more frequently in elite endurance athletes. But what about elite footballers?

It appears that being heterozygous – carrying one of each allele (ID) – could be the ideal combination for football. Having one of each allele provides a useful balance of power and endurance, both essential components for successful performance on the football pitch. While it is clearly important to have the endurance capacity to play at the highest level for 90 minutes, it is even more advantageous to also have the power/strength to compete for tackles and sprint onto the perfect through ball on goal – especially in the closing minutes!

ACTN3

ACTN3 is the famous ‘speed gene’. It codes for the muscle-fiber protein alpha-actinin-3, linked to greater baseline strength and an increased number of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Carriers of the R (C) allele produce this protein, which may allow for increased strength, speed, and power. Elite football players have also been found to more frequently carry two copies of this beneficial R allele. The likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Bale, and Salah – players dominating the world of football – clearly demonstrate the physiological traits of speed and power, so it could be the case that they also carry this beneficial genotype.

Obviously, it is not just players’ genetics that determines whether they can compete at an elite level. Dedication, focus, practice, training, and good luck all play critical roles. Beneficial genetic variants provide a solid foundation upon which training builds, demonstrating a classic example of the interaction between genes and environmental (lifestyle) factors.

As well as the ACE and ACTN3 genes, there are others that influence players' potential to reach the highest level in football. One study in footballers from Russia, identified the V and C allele of the UCP2 and PPARA genes respectively, to be advantageous and were more frequently observed in elite footballers [6]. While UCP2 is an uncoupling protein directly linked with metabolic efficiency, PPARA is involved in the body’s metabolic use of fats as fuel (vs. carbohydrates) as well as contributing to the distribution of fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers.

ACE, ACTN3, PPARA, and UCP2 are all critical genetic factors impacting endurance performance, and all are tested by us here at FitnessGenes. To find out if you may hold some hidden football prowess, check out our DNA Analysis and training systems.

If you enjoyed this blog, please read my other posts:

How eating speed influences your weight

A simple health test you should try today

HIIT-ing middle age

Green exercise:  The hidden powers of your local park

Running Economy

What is hypertrophy?

What's the difference between fast and slow twitch muscle fibers?

Using fat for fuel

Food Cravings

Your lunch break is not just for eating. Upgrade it to a runch!

Resistance Band Training

Get to know your heart

How Alcohol May Be Limiting Your Progress

Running and Genetics

Mindfulness

Genetic Dominance of East African and Jamaican Runners

Sprint and Power Performance

The Nordic Diet

Seaweed

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