Kevin De Bruyne used painkillers at the Euros. It is possible to find a better way to prevent players from getting tired due to the exhausting club and country schedules. Meng Dingbo/Xinhua via Getty Images
Pep Guardiola, Manchester City's boss, raised the alarm last April by complaining that FIFA and UEFA were "killing" players by scheduling too many matches with insufficient recovery time. "No player can sustain not only [the] physicality but also the mentality to be ready every single day to compete against other players to win the game."
Kevin De Bruyne of Guardiola's City players stated earlier this week that he used two painkillers against Italy at Euro 2020. He said that if he had known what it would do for his ankle, he wouldn't have played. Last week, FIFPRO (the international players' union) released their report on player workload.
It was not surprising that top players were severely overworked. This is not a matter of playing too many sports. It's also a matter of spending too much time in the "critical zone", which is two periods of 45 minutes each on the pitch, with no more than five days rest between. This is when both short-term as well as long-term health can be most affected. There are many other issues, too, such as global travel and off-season vacations that seem to be getting shorter for many.
Talk to the top players, coaches, administrators, and even Arsene Younger about his biennial World Cup plan. It is based on playing less, but more meaningful games.
The International Match Calendar, the master agreement that regulates the dates of international and domestic football matches, expires in 2024. This has sparked a heated debate. This is football's Y2K, if you can remember it. Some sort of agreement must be reached, but this is a complex issue that is partly about money and influence. Nobody wants to stop playing more matches.
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There is a noticeable imbalance in the number and type of matches that teams play in the same league. Crystal Palace and Manchester City both play in the Premier League. However, the former played 40 games (they were not in Europe and were knocked out in early domestic cups), while the latter played more than half a dozen -- an increase of over 50 percent -- as they reached the Champions League finals and League Cup semifinals.
Would Palace like to have played more games? Yes. Although it may not be 61 like City's, professional athletes enjoy playing sports (duh). Owners also like the TV money and exposure that playing games brings. It's easy to imagine Palace fans enjoying it as well. It's fun to go to a home match and watch your team play. They only did it 19 times. (City fans did it 28 times.
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This is Palace. They are in the Premier League which allows them to play against many different coaches and styles as well as some of the best players around the world. Most European leagues do not offer this opportunity. They play only domestically, or if they qualify to play in Europe, go two-and out in the qualifying rounds. The idea of reducing Europe's top leagues' number to 18 (of the Big Five, only the Bundesliga has 18, while the rest have 20,) is still a controversial topic. It's almost like trading your gas-guzzling SUV in for a small car.
A Premier League or LaLiga structure would have 18 clubs, eliminating four fixtures. This would allow for more rest/recovery. This would result in more meaningful fixtures and fewer pointless ones. Although the TV deal may shrink slightly, you would lose midweek fixtures which are usually less lucrative. This would be compensated by the fact you'd share the revenue among fewer clubs. This would allow clubs to have more time to prepare and train, which could lead to better games.
It would be a great idea, but nobody wants to lose. In the end, nothing is accomplished. This is why most unions oppose it. Fewer top-flight clubs means fewer jobs.
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The direction of travel, at least in Europe, is actually the opposite. Consider the new Champions League model and its Swiss counterpart, which will add four fixtures every year to each participating club's calendar starting in 2024. The easiest way to increase revenue quickly is to get the largest teams with the greatest stars to play more matches.
De Bruyne and Guardiola are just a few of the many top players who feel that too many games is a problem for their health. What can you do? You tell them to take it all! "Oh, you love living in your huge house with three sports cars. You are proud of the wealth and fame you have accumulated over the years. Yes. You have to play a few more games in order to get it. So, accept it.
This is a tempting position for some. But hopefully, we can be more educated. We cannot just rely on the science of sports to do its job. Yes, even though there are legitimate complaints, today's ex-pros live longer, better lives, and perform at higher levels for longer periods of time, contrary to what many people believe. Sports science and medicine are a large part of this, but it is not enough to keep you cured forever. Painkillers are not an option for players who need them to stay active or those who have to stop training in-season due to the need to play matches. This should be an exception to the rule.
We must be more innovative and better at what we do. The Match Calendar reset provides the chance to do just that, with many solutions being explored.
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Like truck drivers and air traffic controllers have time limits, footballers may also be limited in their hours. This could include limiting the time they spend in the "critical zones" and providing mandatory rest periods at the end. Although it is possible to reduce the number of competition teams and games, it can be difficult. There may be better formats.
This is not the only strand. International football is another. While his plan for a biennial World Cup is flawed, Wenger is correct when he says that people want fewer matches but more meaningful matches. It is important for players to develop, for fans to entertain, and for member associations at cash registers. Sometimes less is actually more.
The elephant in the room is another. Clubs make money by playing games. Almost everything is tied to this, including gate receipts and broadcast revenue. Prize money, prize money, prize money, eyeballs that could be turned into sponsorship money, brand-building that can shift merchandise, or sponsorship money. Clubs require and want money. You can cut costs, increase revenue, or both.
Although most leagues have some form of cost control, they do not include a salary cap. There are many other ways to reduce costs. One way is to tie a portion of a player’s salary to club revenues (effectively giving the player equity, but you would call it a bonus). As we mentioned, even though the best players are likely to play many more games than the majority of the population, they could still be able to play a lot more. They would generate the same amount of revenue. They wouldn't. They would generate revenue and that could also be part of the solution.
It seems that there are many moving parts. It is necessary to find a holistic solution that doesn't just involve top players or teams playing together 24/7.