Last April, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola sounded the alarm, complaining that UEFA and FIFA were “killing” the players by scheduling too many games with not enough recovery time. “No player can sustain, not just [the] physicality, [but also the] mentality to be ready every day to compete against opponents to win the game.”
Earlier this week, Kevin De Bruyne, one of Guardiola’s players at City, said he played with two painkilling injections against Italy at Euro 2020 and that “if I’d known beforehand what it would do to my ankle, I wouldn’t have played.” And last week, FIFPRO, the international players’ union, issued their report on player workload.
They found, not surprisingly, that many top players are severely overworked. It’s not just a question of playing too many games; it’s a question of too many minutes in what is defined as the “critical zone” — two stints of at least 45 minutes on the pitch with less than five days rest in between — when short-term and long-term health are most likely to be impacted. And there are other issues of course, from global travel to off-season breaks that, for many, keep getting shorter.
Speak to top players, coaches, administrators or even Arsene Wenger — whose biennial World Cup plan, he says, is based on playing fewer, but more meaningful, games — and it feels like it’s the one thing most can agree on, at least in public.
It’s a debate that has come to the fore because the International Match Calendar — the master agreement that governs when football matches, domestic and international, can be played — expires in 2024. It’s football’s Y2K (if you’re old enough to remember that) and some sort of agreement has to be hammered out, but the problem here is that this is a hugely complicated issue only partly about money and influence, with nobody wanting to take a step back and play fewer matches.
For a start, there’s a striking imbalance in the number of matches teams play even in the same league. Crystal Palace and Manchester City are both English clubs who play in the Premier League, but the former played 40 games (they weren’t in Europe and got knocked out early in domestic cups) while the latter played 61 — an increase of more than 50 percent — because they reached the Champions League and League Cup finals and the semifinal of the FA Cup.
Would Palace have liked to play more games? Sure. Maybe not 61 like City, but professional athletes generally like to play sports (duh) and, of course, owners like the TV money, exposure and home gates that playing games brings. You’d imagine Palace fans would have enjoyed it too. Going to watch your team play at home in a competitive match is fun, and they only got to do it 19 times. (City fans, meanwhile, did it 28 times.)