Kevin De Bruyne’s pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 season ended on August 15, when Manchester City lost their Champions League quarter-final to Lyon. He had a few weeks off, then returned to competition on September 8, as Belgium took on Iceland in the Nations League.
Then it’s straight into the 2020-21 domestic season, which ran until the Champions League final on May 29. From there he went straight to the European Championship, playing four times in 15 days before Belgium were eliminated on July 2.
From there he had a month off and then was back in City’s pre-season from August 2.
Ten months later, he continues.
De Bruyne is set to line up in Belgium’s Nations League home game against Poland tonight (Wednesday) and then will likely be called up to play two more games, away to Wales on Saturday and then back with Poland on Tuesday, before finally being able to rest from June 14.
He will have about enough time to build a sandcastle on a beach somewhere, before returning to pre-season and preparing for the Community Shield on July 30.
It’s a roundabout way of saying that it’s no wonder De Bruyne isn’t a big fan of the (rather) new UEFA Nations League concept.
“The Nations League is not important to me,” De Bruyne said ahead of Belgium’s first game of the 2022-23 iteration of the competition, against the Netherlands last Friday. “(They are) Just glorified friendlies after a long and difficult season. I can’t wait to be there.
“As players we can talk about holidays or rest, but we don’t have a say. We have just over three weeks of holidays every 12 months.
Virgil van Dijk was of a similar opinion.
“It’s strange that there are four Nations League games after a long season,” said Liverpool’s Dutch captain. “But it’s decided now and we have no possibility to change this decision. I believe that in these four games there is more chance of getting injured after a long season.
This last point is particularly relevant. Players will not only look at these two weeks of Nations League games with suspicion because they are exhausted from the long season that is coming to an end, but also because they have another, even more exhausting one ahead. horizon.
The 2022-23 season is going to be a strange one for Europe-based elite players.
They are expected to go wild for four months, put the club’s business on the shelf in November to play in both the weirdest and probably the most morally reprehensible World Cup ever, then return immediately after finishing in Qatar in the second half of the domestic campaign.
African players with European clubs are used to this kind of antics, of course. But a) that’s no reason to expect everyone else to, and b) they at least have the relative luxury of continuing domestic seasons while they’re away from AFCON, thus reducing their obligations slightly. , in terms of schedule – this time everyone is expected to sneak into every game.
The 2023 Champions League final is scheduled for June 10. Then, as a little bonus for those who think they haven’t played enough football in the last 12 months, the four-team Nations League finals will take place from June 14-18.
Take De Bruyne or Van Dijk as examples, men who play for teams that could conceivably go far in six different competitions next season: the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, World Cup and the League of Nations. . You can also take part in some Euro 2024 qualifiers in March next year.
That’s a total of 79 potential competitive matches over the next year, plus a few extra friendlies just for yuck.
Of course, nobody will play them all, but the exact number is almost irrelevant: De Bruyne and Van Dijk will still have to participate in all these tournaments, some less important than others but all demanding their physical and mental attention. .
Footballers tend not to feel much sympathy when pointing out how much football they have to play, but if you look at the barrel of it all, with just a few weeks of clean break from mid-June to early July , you can see why De Bruyne and Van Dijk are opposed to even more competitive football being imposed on them.
It should be noted that other players involved in the games this summer disagreed with comments from De Bruyne and Van Dijk, Joao Moutinho and John Stones to name but two. But it may not be a coincidence that De Bruyne and Van Dijk are guaranteed starting places for their countries in Qatar this winter, while Stones and Moutinho are less certain to be at the heart of what the club is doing. England and Portugal. The latter two have something to gain in these June games, the chance to fight their way in favor of their coaches, so they’re not going to belittle them. The former couple are much freer to express their opinions.
The League of Nations theory is good. Replace meaningless friendlies with something theoretically competitive, something that feels a little less like a waste of everyone’s time, and the winners get a nice medal and boost their Wikipedia page. At first, the novelty seemed fun: far fewer dreary schedule fillers where teams showed up physically but not really in their heads or spirits.
And it launched some decent games. England’s comeback victory over Croatia to reach the competition’s inaugural final in June 2019 felt like redemption of sorts for the World Cup semi-final loss to them in Russia four months earlier. France’s victories over Belgium and then Spain in the final of the 2020-21 edition last October were both absolute tears.
But the problem is that these games are only as competitive as the people who participate in them think.
No matter how many times UEFA shouts at them how prestigious this all is, if the players aren’t bothered/are completely knocked out/don’t want to be there, they won’t try as hard.
This is a potential explanation for the unusual results we saw in the first two group rounds of the 2022-23 Nations League.
Defending champions France lost at home to Denmark and drew against Croatia. England lost in Hungary. Spain drew against Portugal and the Czech Republic. The Netherlands beat Belgium 4-1 in Brussels. These are the kind of results you can expect when you have an elite group of players with their minds on other things, wishing they could have rested.
The original argument that these matches replace friendlies is also irrelevant: no one was playing four friendlies at the end of a difficult season. Now UEFA has added another couple, and oh by the way, everyone expects you to do your best too, so chop, chop, run.
If European football’s governing body insists on the Nations League replacing friendlies, do it: limit yourself to in-season international breaks and allow players the luxury of the occasional summer break.
Even the toughest builders agree.
“It’s actually crazy,” says Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, “that at the end of a season in which the players also had to play so many games in a short time due to the COVID virus , they still have to play such a series of games.”
Players at the top of the game have just completed a mentally and physically exhausting season and have an even more mentally and physically exhausting season ahead. It was going to be a clear summer, a chance for everyone to take a break, recuperate, clear their minds after three more or less pandemic-affected seasons, and breathe deeply as they prepare for what’s to come.
Instead, they are being asked to play four more games – more than many of them would if their national team went to a real summer tournament – over a week and a half to generate more revenue.
UEFA saw a void of two whole months without competitive men’s football and filled it, not caring either who would have to play it or whether those watching would be interested.
More games, more games, more games.
Whip the shiny horses until they fall, then lift them up and tell them to come back over there.
Don’t give anyone a moment of peace.
Stuff the calendar until it bursts.
Then start again.
(Top photo: Nico Vereecken/Photo News via Getty Images)