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Life in lockdown: International tournaments

What is life like at an international tournament? We spoke to two former stars to understand the restrictions players face when they are pursuing glory at a major finals.

Nuno Gomes remembers well life on international duty with Portugal
Nuno Gomes remembers well life on international duty with Portugal ©Getty Images

Striker Nuno Gomes scored 29 times in 79 matches for Portugal, appearing at three EUROs and two FIFA World Cups.

Former England midfielder Karen Carney won 144 caps, scoring 32 times. She played in four FIFA Women's World Cups and four UEFA Women's EUROs, as well as representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games.

We asked the pair a series of questions to understand what life is like in tournament lockdown.

You had some great times at tournaments, but how much do you remember away from the pitch?

Nuno Gomes: "It's funny, because everybody thinks that football players have a wonderful life and get to know a lot of countries. It's true, we travel a lot, but while we were travelling, especially at big tournaments, we were stuck in one place and didn't have time to visit the city as we would like. We were under a lot of pressure.

"I used to say to my friends, 'I know a lot of countries, but I only know the airports, the stadiums and the hotels where we stay. I don't know the city, the streets, the museums."

Karen Carney: "It can be pretty mundane. You get up and do your tests and training, there's a lot of meetings, but it depends where you are, what country you are in, and what safety issues there might be around the hotel.

Karen Carney in tournament action with England
Karen Carney in tournament action with England©Getty Images

"It feels a bit like quarantine and I always struggled with it, being in a confined space for a long time where you aren't doing what you are used to. Sometimes we weren't allowed to go out or weren't allowed to go for a walk for more than 30 minutes, so it was quite strict at times, but of course you are aware you're there to do a job and so you take the advice you’re given."

Do you remember how you kept entertained, and who you bonded with?

Karen Carney: "I was often one of the younger players, but made friends with the older players quite easily. My nickname was 'Mute', because I was quite quiet as one of the younger ones, but I would just be enjoying it and taking things in.

"We'd often go out for coffees and walks, just try to escape the boredom of the hotel. The fun parts were going to places you hadn't been to before. In Canada we went to Niagara Falls, to visit the CN Tower, just trying to do regular things.

"I remember being away with Arsenal once, and the manager, Vic Akers, agreed to take us out so long as everyone agreed to go. We were all keen apart from Mary Phillip, an England team-mate, who was adamant she wasn't going out and said: 'I've got a good book, I'm not going.'

"We tried to protest with her, but she wouldn't budge. In the end, we begged Vic to take us and eventually he agreed to take us out. I don't know what Mary was reading, but she wasn't budging. She was hilarious, but at that time she was a mother of two, had her own house and other responsibilities, and she wouldn't be told what she could or couldn't do."

Nuno Gomes on the training pitch with Portugal
Nuno Gomes on the training pitch with Portugal©Getty Images

Nuno Gomes: "If we were somewhere for a long time, we would have a special area for the players in the hotel, we called it the players' lounge, where we could be together and play games, quizzes, karaoke or bingo. That meant we could have one or two hours together after dinner, with some prizes for the winners, which was always good for team spirit.

"There were some funny guys like Bosingwa and Raul Meireles, for example. Because I'm from another generation, Petit was also a funny guy, and Ricardo the goalkeeper. I got lucky with the teams I had because there were always some players less shy than the others to help keep a good environment.

"When you are together for more than a month with your team-mates and don't see other people, because the hotels are closed just for you, after a while you get tired of seeing and doing the same things. You need a lot of imagination and a good group of people to stay entertained. But there was nothing that makes you want to leave!"

It must be testing to be away from family and loved ones for a long period? How did you cope with that, or get around it?

Nuno Gomes: "As footballers, during your career you are used to being away from your family. Every week you have games, you have pre-season. I left my parents' house when I was 14 to go to a different city to live alone with other boys like me. So we get used to it.

"And you are happy because you are at a big tournament that every player wants to be at. So on one hand you are a little sad because you're away from people you love, but on the other you are realising your dreams, doing something you love.

"We had EURO 2004 in Portugal. That was different from other situations for us, you are close to family and friends and sometimes visits were allowed. It's easier to get through the days."

Karen Carney had many away trips with England
Karen Carney had many away trips with England©Getty Images

Karen Carney: "I actually started camps when I was 14, because I was in the younger England age groups as well and they were quite regular.

"Being away from family is hard, but because I had been doing it from that young age, I got quite used to it. It could be tough sharing a room with someone else for six to seven weeks though, missing those things you were used to.

"My family came to a lot of tournaments, and could go off and do their fun things, so it was good for them. I was a bit jealous of that, they got to see the Great Wall of China, meet the pandas, and we couldn't do that because we couldn't go out or go and explore."

Food is of course provided for you, but to eat the same things day after day must become tiresome too? Any special treats you allowed yourself?

Karen Carney: "We used to eat so regularly as part of our schedule that you didn't want anything extra. You can become institutionalised quite quickly. I remember coming back from Canada in 2015, where we had been for six or seven weeks, eating certain foods on a limited menu, and you stopped thinking about what you're actually eating. My mum and dad were excited to see me when we got back and asked what I wanted to eat for dinner, but I hadn't made a decision like that for six weeks, so it became a stressful situation!"

Nuno Gomes: "With the national team, we always had a Portuguese chef. He used to travel a week or two before us to prepare the hotel kitchen and organise the food there. The chef was one of the most important people for us.

"After a while we would miss some food, so to get us feeling good he would always make things similar to how we ate in our homes. Sometimes you could have a little something away from the eyes of the doctors or nutritionists. We would negotiate with the chef and the staff to allow us to eat something different. In Portugal we love to eat pastel de nata, a type of tart, and we used to ask for that for dessert a lot!"

How did it feel at the end of a tournament, once victory or defeat had sunk in, and you realised you would be leaving the hotel and returning to 'normality'?

Karen Carney: "When you lose in a tournament, and you know you're going home, it's horrible, even though you know you're going back to your normal life.

"There was never a good ending for me because I never won a gold medal, so that time and energy you put in hadn't worked out the way you wanted. You're so institutionalised that going back to normality can actually be quite difficult. You've been in a bubble for a long time.

"Last year in France [2019 FIFA Women's World Cup], where I knew I was retiring, felt a bit more of a celebration, but there is always a hangover after a tournament and it is difficult to get over, in terms of recovery, motivation and having to start from scratch again."

Nuno Gomes feels the pain of defeat
Nuno Gomes feels the pain of defeat©Getty Images

Nuno Gomes: "After EURO 2000 and the 2006 World Cup, we went to the stadium to celebrate afterwards with the Portuguese fans. You are never ready to return but it depends how long your stay is. If your stay is long, you get tired during the days but it's a good sign if you are still there.

"When you are away, you think about what you will do afterwards. I used to prepare our family holidays, because we had some time off after the tournaments, so I would be preparing and choosing where to go to relax and get away from everything before the season arrived."

If you had the chance, would you go back to a tournament and relive the whole thing over again?

Karen Carney: "It depends on my body. If I could do it again in the peak of my career, I would do it in a heartbeat. But maybe not now I've retired – no chance, I don't want to do it again now at all!"

Nuno Gomes: "If I had the chance to go back to a tournament, I would choose the final of EURO 2004. It was at Benfica's stadium, my home stadium.

"We lost to Greece, so I would have to change the result. Maybe I would start, because I was on the bench, and maybe I would score the winning goal!"