Whether at Manchester United, on a luxury plane or economy class, travel takes its toll

From a footballer who has plied his trade around the world, our columnist gives an insight into the strains long-haul flying can have on a modern-day player.

Illustration by Kevin Jeffers / The National
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I found it difficult when I first started to travel around the world as a footballer. Hotels go from places you are excited to stay in to places you get tired of pretty quickly.

You slowly get used to the travel because it becomes your normal life, one where you are constantly on the move, but those first transatlantic flights back to Uruguay from Europe to join up with my country were a shock.

You would really notice the difference in the weather, from a European winter to the heat of the summer in the southern hemisphere, though jet lag was not a big problem as the time difference was usually only four hours.

Uruguay’s players flew in economy then, though I soon started to pay the extra for business or first-class seats from my own pocket. It made a big difference and I could get some sleep, especially as I could be taking four or five flights just to reach a Uruguay game in South America. Half the games were away from home and that could mean another two or even three flights to get from the south of South America to the north. Montevideo to Bogota or Quito is seven hours and we always had to change in Sao Paulo or Panama or somewhere else.

You will feel even more tired if you are playing at altitude in somewhere like Quito or La Paz, Bolivia. Now the team flies by chartered aircraft, and while you may get two or three seats to yourself, they are not business class.

Only the biggest club teams have business-class-only planes, they are too expensive for the rest. At Manchester United, we hired Dallas Mavericks’ luxury team plane during a 2004 pre-season tour.

I am not complaining because if you choose to play football in Europe then it means you are going to do a lot of travelling. And if you choose to play in Japan, as I did, then you are going to do even more travelling and get badly jet-lagged.

I just want to give you some insight into what it is like. I have seen a couple of managers complain about four-hour flights, to Russia or Ukraine, but four hours is nothing to me. I have played international games two days after travelling around the world. Your body clock is all over the place and you are waking up at 4am. But once a game starts then your adrenalin kicks in and you seem to forget the tiredness.

Returning to Europe can be tiring. You might get back late on Thursday night and have to be training on Friday for a game on Saturday. You could have picked up a knock up or be a bit down because you didn’t play well or your team lost.

In those situations you just want to be by yourself and not speak to anyone, not even your family.

The issue is that as a footballer you get recognised when you are out in public. Normally, I do not have a problem signing an autograph or stopping for a picture. I am happy to talk, yet if you have just got off an overnight flight for a connection and you are tired or deflated, it can be testing.

One solution would be to get straight off the front of the plane, go into a lounge area and then board the plane at the last minute. Another, which I have never done, is to fly direct by private plane. With Fifa moving international games forward to a Tuesday, players need to get back home as quickly as possible. If Argentina have six or seven players in Spain, for example, then it makes sense for them to fly private together, even if they play for rival clubs.

That suits everyone: the country get their players early and the clubs get them back a day earlier, too.

Something else you have to get accustomed to is playing over the festive period at the end of December. In South America, you have time off with family and friends. In Spain, you get two weeks off.

I would fly straight back to Uruguay and while I would enjoy myself, I would still train every day; it is important not to lose the fitness you have spent months building up.

In England, there is no chance of losing it. You get no time off and play more games than usual. That is hard when you do it for the first time, but soon it becomes normal.

I remember inviting my family to spend Christmas in Manchester for the first time. They had been used to Christmas on the beach and were worried that it would be raining and cold, but I told them to enjoy the novelty value of an English Christmas in the cold and they did. Now they talk about those holidays with fond memories.