By the time Rowllin Borges had begun acing Under-14 age-group trials for clubs in Goa, he already knew he would be a football player. He was usually the tallest at trials, and coaches would immediately put him in midfield. He still plays there, but for Mumbai City FC, who are five points clear at the top of the Indian Super League (ISL) table with half the season left. This season, Borges has the most number of interceptions (37) of any player in the league. He has also attempted more passes (643) than any other Indian player.
His job seems simple: cut the passing lanes, break up play, and quickly rotate the ball. In practice, it’s anything but easy. In Mumbai City head coach Sergio Lobera’s system, Borges has to stay switched on at all times, both mentally and physically. He has to predict where possible passes or stray balls will go through, he has to win the ball, and he has to make sure that his team keep possession. Physically, he has to be robust and agile, clean in the tackle and safe in the clearance. He is allowed to shoot from outside the box, and makes rare late surges forward during attacks.
At 28, he has played 33 times for India. In club football, Borges has had stints with Sporting Goa, Northeast United and East Bengal over the years, till he joined Mumbai City in 2019. As a player, Borges has built up a reputation for being one of the fittest footballers in the country. He says that he started to take fitness seriously when he was 24. “I was out for one-and-a-half months with an ankle injury. I want to recover in a way that I didn’t have another setback. So I started speaking with physiotherapists, dieticians, friends, and started reading about fitness. And I started using all this information. Those first few fitness bars I set myself are making me better each and every year. My body is getting better. I am including more and more things in my diet, and learning more about food,” he says.
Borges jokingly says that he used to be “a rice-and-fish-curry player” before he started taking his diet seriously. While his cheat meals include the odd slice of pizza, he has cut out most sugar from his food and is a big fan of salads, greens, and especially avocados. He understands the privilege of being in a setting which allows him access to the expensive fruit, but also misses Goan home food. “I miss the simplicity of those days. Because giving up food is a sacrifice. So if you want to be an athlete, and if you go to a buffet, and start eating everything there, maybe it won’t affect your game immediately, but it won’t work in the long run.”
Borges says he used to get cramps every 75 minutes when his fitness routine was not as sound as it is now. “I haven’t cramped up since creating my fitness blueprint,” he says. The midfielder, who has seven ISL goals to his name, works out every day in the gym in the morning, in addition to football training sessions in the evening. The lengths of his sessions are managed to prevent overtraining.
Manuel Sayabera, Mumbai City’s strength and conditioning coach, works with Borges everyday on injury prevention, so that he can continue to train hard. “Then he can increase his levels as a player. Some people say you have to run 10kms in a match, but no, it depends on situations, the philosophy of play, and how the player plays. Rowllin is a good player, but his discipline sets him apart. He doesn’t care when he’s played, he always trains with the same focus,” says Sayabera. He adds that Borges “can get fitter.”
Numbers from football analytics company SportVU show that Borges covers an average distance of 10km per match, and he is usually either running and sprinting for over 40% of this distance. In a top of the table clash against ATK, which Mumbai City won 1-0 on 11 January, Borges covered 9.2kms and made 18 sprints. In all of last season, he made 109 ball recoveries, and he’s already made 72 of those midway through this campaign, well on course to beat his numbers from 2019-20.
For an elite level footballer, working in the gym does not mean adding bulk. Sayabera puts Borges through drills which help the player focus on particular aspects of his physique and strength. “You have to understand that strength is not how much you lift. In football, strength is to fight for the ball, to shoot, and to jump. In India, from what I have observed, the key now is for players to work more specifically: to accelerate faster, to jump higher, and to protect the ball better,” says Sayabera.
Borges agrees that his high energy levels help him maintain his fitness. Oddly enough, he says he never takes a day off from physical activity. During the off-season, he will cycle, run, play football with his friends or join a gully cricket game. He simply has to do something because he says he gets bored very easily. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t watch the odd television series. I relax as well, and sometimes I eat cake. Of course, I will make sure I run it off later in the day,” he says.
Borges has played in every game for Mumbai City this season. He is at an age when midfielders usually peak, and at 28, he is one of the first name on the team sheet for both club and country. But behind the ball recoveries and tackles, the aerial duels and the reaching interceptions, Borges’ attention to detail and commitment to a fitness routine has given him an edge over the others.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.