A few days before the Champions League Final, FIFPro, the body that represents players’ unions from around the world, gathered folks in Paris for the release of their new study on player workloads. It won’t surprise you that, at the highest level, top players are seriously overworked.
Seventy-two players appeared in 55 or more games — the upper limit, according to sports scientists and high performance coaches cited in the study — in 2020-21. They also spoke of something called the “critical zone” — defined as playing back-to-back matches with less than five days off between them — when injuries are more likely to occur and fatigue and stress build up. In 2020-21, Harry Maguire played 100% of his minutes in this “critical zone” while Luka Modric at one point played in 24 back-to-back games.
FIFPro also batted around possible solutions. From enforced rest periods in the summer (four weeks should be a minimum according to high performances coaches, but a guy like Mikel Oyarzabal only got eight days) to longer, but less frequent, international breaks in order to cut down on travel. From a mandatory limit on back-to-back games — again, high performance coaches say there should not be more than four to six in a season — to longer preseason camps, which they call “re-training” and see as necessary to recover and build the endurance necessary to face the season.
These are all valid concerns, especially for players at the highest level. Gianluca Vialli used to say (and he wasn’t joking) that “sports are good for you, professional sports not so much.” He’s right. For all the medical and sports science advances, most ex-pros you meet have some sort of lingering injury in retirement, if not something worse. There’s a mental health aspect, too. When you’re constantly playing, traveling or training and have a family, it takes its toll.
But there’s a fundamental problem in the narrative here, and that is the lack of incentive to change.
Players at the very highest level, who are often the ones stuck in that back-to-back-to-back loop or traveling around the world, playing more than 55 games a season, also tend to be the ones who earn the most money. It may be wrong, but public opinion generally doesn’t proffer much sympathy when you’re a millionaire. The message from fans and critics tends to be “suck it up and count your money.”
Another factor is that beneath the tip of the iceberg — the vastly overworked players — is the 99% of professionals who actually don’t play very much and, in fact, would probably happily play more.
Take Wolverhampton Wanderers, who finished midtable in the Premier League. They had seven players who played in 40 or more games, for club and country, which means they had 18 players who played in fewer than that. Look at midtable sides across Europe’s big leagues and you’ll find similar proportions. Push it out to the lower leagues or smaller leagues across the continent, and the numbers of professionals simply not playing very much only swells.
So when it comes to footballers as a whole, while there may be solidarity for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne or Mohamed Salah or others who seemingly are always on the go, the vast majority simply don’t have that problem. Thus the simplest solution — reducing the number of matches by slimming down cup competitions or reducing the number of clubs in the top flight — is also in many ways the least workable.
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Clubs have to fill stadiums and broadcasters have to fill air time, and the easiest, most straightforward way to increase revenue is simply to play more games. It’s not particularly imaginative, but it’s a formula that works not just in football, but in the NFL and the NBA as well. You have a bunch of fixed costs (player wages, mostly) and you have an empty stadium; if you fill it, you’ll probably make more money because the variable cost of opening your stadium is comparatively negligible. It’s Economics 101, and it’s not hard to understand. And that’s before you get into the political minefield of smaller clubs opposing reducing the size of leagues because they’ll miss out financially.
FIFPro raised another issue, voiced primarily by the performance coaches and sport scientists in the survey. If you play too many games, you’ll have weary, tired players if you’re lucky, and injured players if you’re unlucky. As a result, you’ll get a worse product on the pitch.
I get this argument. Take Liverpool this past season. They played a monstrous number of games because they got to the final in every competition they entered. Compare their performances down the stretch with some of those earlier in the campaign, and they were distinctly un-Liverpool-like. Players were tired, they were weary, they weren’t as sharp. We saw some bad games — “bad” as in fatigued teams making mistakes they wouldn’t ordinarily make — which Liverpool still managed to gut out and win (mostly). It was a bit like we see, without fail, over every Boxing Day/New Year’s Day period.
But guess what? Purists may note this, and maybe fans too, but do they care? Judging by ratings and attendances, I’d suggest they don’t. In fact, many relish the spectacle regardless, in the same way you might enjoy seeing two boxers who can barely stand by Round 12 somehow finding the energy to keep going.
I couldn’t tell you if it has always been this way or if supporters, even neutral supporters, have stopped caring in recent years. A half-fit Mohamed Salah is still Mohamed Salah; he’s not as sharp or as quick, but he’s still there, it’s still Liverpool and, especially given the gap in talent with most teams, odds are he’ll still get the job done somehow. Not to mention, many just want to see goals. When legs are heavy and minds are clouded, that’s when mistakes happen and that’s when the ball goes into the net. Plus, let’s face it: Two perfectly fit teams going at it at a high pace doesn’t necessarily make for a more entertaining game. Sometimes it just means they cancel each other out.
So, the argument that somehow folks will stop tuning in because the spectacle won’t be as good with tired players doesn’t necessarily hold water. They may stop tuning in when it gets boring, but, perversely, the more tired players are, the more mistakes they make and the more likely we are to see goals. And goals are exciting — even when it’s a tap-in after Maguire, playing his 63rd game of the season and his 14th back-to-back, loses the ball to the opposition press at the edge of his own penalty area.
So is there a fix? The only one I can see is imposing mandatory rests in certain circumstances, like they do for truck drivers or airline pilots. Yet you have to do it in such a way that clubs don’t feel they’re losing financially. Maybe it means limiting the number of back-to-back games a player can play in a season, or the number of overall matches in a rolling 12-month period, or both. Working on the individual rather than the team ensures you don’t have to cut down on the number of fixtures, just the number of appearances by your overworked superstar. And because when you buy a ticket to see Liverpool, you don’t know if you’re getting Salah or Takumi Minamino, fans will accept it. Maybe. And only if teams are smart about resting the right guys at the right time.
How do we get there? Who enforces it? This is where, frankly, the players need to step up. Maybe if De Bruyne, who has spoken about this on numerous occasions, gets together with the other guys on the overworked list and says “OK, we’re going to do this, we’re all going to keep a public record and we’re all going to simply refuse to play when we hit a certain spot in the season, whether it’s too many games in the ‘critical zone’ or too many overall.” If they all agree to do it across all affected clubs and it happens in a transparent way, then no club will feel excessively penalized.
It would be power play, sure, and it won’t be popular. Some will point out that their bodies can take it, than not all players are created alike, that 45 games may be too much for some while 65 may be a breeze for others. Clubs and countries will squabble over who has to deal with the enforced rest. And it’s also a ton to ask of these overworked superstars. But the simple reality is that there’s nobody else who can go to bat for them but themselves.
The economic realities are what they are; so too are the priorities of the vast majority of their colleagues. And if you’re going to wait for the governing bodies to do something about it? Well, you had might as well wait for Godot. (Hint: He never shows up.)