By Doug Reed
There seems to be no end to the trend of squeezing more and more games into an already heavily congested football calendar. Whilst this brings more money into the game, is it at the cost of player welfare and fan entertainment?
Tottenham and South Korea’s Hueng-Min Son played 78 matches in 384 days between summer 2018 and summer 2019 and travelled over 110,000 kilometers to represent his national team. His break from football during this period was just 22 days in the off-season.
The constant games and minimal rest will inevitably impact players' short-term and long-term well-being.
It increases the likelihood of playing with injuries. Pain is the body’s way of warning of damage, but many players feel the pressure to mask this signal. FIFA found that one in four players at the 2018 World Cup were taking painkillers before a match and, even more concerning, at the 2005 Under 17 and 2007 Under 20 World Cup the figure reached almost half of all players.
Former Liverpool defender Daniel Agger, who retired aged 31, collapsed whilst representing Brondby after taking more than the recommended maximum dose of anti-inflammatory drugs beforehand. Danish research has shown the chances of developing heart problems, such as heart attacks, increases following the ingestion of one anti-inflammatory that is popular in football.
Is the increased physical strain placed on their bodies during their careers having long-term health consequences? A study through the PFA in 2002 found over half of players retired because of injury. Another found, in players 45 or younger that had stopped playing, a staggering 80% had knee osteoarthritis, a disease usually associated with those in old age.
No-one has investigated the mental health problems that players experience during their career but such frequent games that are physically and psychologically exhausting, as well as all the travelling and time away from home, is likely to have an adverse impact there as well.
Loss for Fans
More games do not necessarily benefit fans either.
They want to see the top players performing their best out on the pitch, often paying a lot for the privilege, but fatigue, injury or early retirement can mean they miss out. Many now retire from international duty because they cannot cope with the demands.
The fans also risk missing out on seeing teenage prodigies fulfilling expectations because of burnout and injury due to so many games whilst their bodies are still developing.
18-year-old Pedri has been a revelation since signing for FC Barcelona from the Spanish 2nd division last summer. The Spanish midfielder’s transition to a higher level has been swift, playing the equivalent of over 48 full 90-minute games for club and country in his first season with both.
There is also the question of how packed schedules affect the integrity of competition. An increasingly important factor in whether a team achieves success or not is how favourable their schedule is compared to opponents. Tottenham Hotspur had the misfortune to face 8 games in 3 weeks last season.
Is the schedule really something that should be influencing whether a team wins or loses?
Players Need to Be Heard
Football’s administrators, of whom virtually none are former players, make the decisions for new competitions, expansion of existing ones or extended pre-season tours. This means more fixtures and less rest, but it is driven by financial concerns with little thought for player welfare.
And this pursuit for wealth through more games may be misguided, as fans value scarcity. The Championship winning team in the NFL, the world’s most valuable sports league, plays a maximum of 20 games a season.
Even if players have benefitted from the increased revenues through more football, they should have the opportunity to decide whether they accept the increased risk to their well-being.
This can’t be left to individual players on an ad-hoc basis. It is difficult to demand to rest whilst under pressure from coaches, teammates and the media, plus they are caught up in their desire to win their next game.
It must be implemented through the game’s authorities and regulation, just as there are rules to protect worker’s health in other professions. The fact the world player union, FIFPRO, is consulted on the international match calendar is clearly not sufficient.
The regulations could include, as FIFPRO has proposed, a mandatory period for an annual off-season, limit on the number of back-to-back games with fewer than 5 days recover time, minimum time between games, extra substitutions and annual match caps for individual players.
When the Covid-19 pandemic forced a pause, with no limits in place, everything was just crammed within an even shorter timeframe without the players having an input.
After the restart, Man Utd and England defender Harry Maguire played 50 games within 7 and half months, giving an average of 4.5 days' rest between games. Young superstar Kylian Mbappé had an off-season of less than 2 weeks as he represented his country in the recently formed UEFA Nations League after playing in the Champions League final.
This is why, to have a powerful voice that protects their interests, players must be united and engage in the issues that affect them. Too frequently they, as well as the fans, are not involved in the major decisions about the game. Without change, Jürgen Klopp has warned; “We will kill the beautiful game. Without the player, the game is not a good one.”