August 12, 2022

With the Champions League final just days away, FIFPro, the body that represents players’ unions around the world, gathered people in Paris for the release of their new player workload study. It won’t surprise you that at the highest level, the best players are seriously overworked.

Seventy-two players have 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 talked about what’s known as the “critical zone” – defined as playing back-to-back games with less than five days off between them – when injuries are more likely to occur and fatigue and stress s accumulate. In 2020-21, Harry Maguire played 100% of his minutes in this ‘critical zone’ while Luka Modric played at some point in 24 consecutive games.

FIFPro has also looked into possible solutions. Forced rest periods in the summer (four weeks should be a minimum according to high performance coaches, but a guy like Mikel Oyarzabal only got eight days) to longer but less frequent international stays in order to reduce travel. From a mandatory limit on consecutive games – again, top coaches say there should be no more than four to six per season – to longer pre-season camps, which they call it “retraining” and consider it necessary to recover and build the stamina needed 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 “sport is good for you, professional sport not so much”. He is right. Despite all the medical and scientific advances in sport, most former professionals you meet have some sort of lingering injury in retirement, if not something worse. There is also a mental health aspect. When you constantly play, travel or train and have a family, it takes its toll.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the narrative here, and that’s the lack of incentive for change.

Players at the highest level, who are often the ones who are stuck in that consecutive loop or who travel around the world, playing more than 55 games per season, also tend to be the ones making the most money. That may be wrong, but public opinion doesn’t usually offer much sympathy when you’re a millionaire. The message from fans and critics tends to be “suck it up and count your money”.

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Another factor is that below the tip of the iceberg – the hugely overworked players – are the 99% of professionals who don’t play a lot and, in fact, would probably play more with pleasure.

Take Wolverhampton Wanderers, who finished in the middle of the Premier League. They had seven players who played in 40 or more games, for club and country, meaning they had 18 players who played less than that. Look at mid-table teams in major European leagues and you’ll find similar proportions. Push it down to the lower leagues or smaller leagues across the continent, and the number of professionals just not playing much only increases.

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 are seemingly always on the go, the vast majority have it all. just not that problem. So the simplest solution – reducing the number of matches by reducing cup competitions or reducing the number of top clubs – is also in many ways the least feasible.

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Clubs need to fill stadiums and broadcasters need to fill airtime, and the best and easiest way to increase revenue is to simply play more games. It’s not particularly imaginative, but it’s a formula that not only works in football, but also in the NFL and NBA. You have a bunch of fixed costs (player salaries, mainly) and you have an empty stadium; if you complete it, you’ll likely make more money because the variable cost of opening your stadium is relatively negligible. It’s Economics 101, and it’s not hard to figure out. And that’s before we get into the political minefield of smaller clubs who oppose reducing the size of leagues because they’re going to miss out financially.

FIFPro raised another issue, voiced mostly by performance coaches and sports scientists in the survey. If you play too many matches, you’ll have tired players if you’re lucky and injured players if you’re unlucky. As a result, you will get a worse product in the field.

I understand this argument. Take Liverpool last season. They have played a monstrous number of matches because they have reached the final in every competition they have entered. Compare their performances over time with some of those at the start of the campaign, and they looked nothing like Liverpool. The players were tired, they were tired, they weren’t as sharp. We’ve seen bad games – ‘bad’ as in tired teams making mistakes they normally wouldn’t – that Liverpool still managed to dump and win (mostly). It was a bit as we see, without fail, at each Boxing Day/New Year’s Day period.

But guess what? Purists may notice this, and perhaps fans too, but do they care? Judging by the ratings and attendance, I’d say they don’t. In fact, many are enjoying the show regardless, the same way you might enjoy seeing two boxers who can barely make it through round 12 somehow find the energy to keep going.

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I couldn’t tell you if it’s always been that way or if fans, even neutral fans, have stopped caring about it in recent years. A half-fit Mohamed Salah is still Mohamed Salah; he’s not as sharp or as quick, but he’s still here, he’s still Liverpool and, especially given the talent gap with most teams, there’s a good chance he’ll make the work one way or another. Not to mention that many just want to see goals. When the legs are heavy and the minds clouded, that’s when mistakes happen and the ball goes into the net. Plus, let’s face it: two perfectly fit teams fighting at high tempo doesn’t necessarily make for a more entertaining game. Sometimes that just means they cancel each other out.

So the argument that people will stop tuning in because the show won’t be as good with tired players doesn’t necessarily hold water. They can stop connecting 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 14th in a row, lost the ball to the opposing press at the edge of his own box of repair.

So is there a fix? The only one I see is to impose mandatory rest periods in certain circumstances, such as truckers or airline pilots. However, it is necessary to ensure that the clubs do not have the impression of losing financially. This may mean limiting the number of consecutive games a player can play in a season, or the number of games in total over a rolling 12 month period, or both. Working on the individual rather than the team ensures that you don’t have to reduce the number of matches, just the number of appearances for 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, the fans will accept it. Maybe. And only if teams are smart about resting the right guys at the right time.

How can we get there? Who applies it? This is, frankly, where players need to step in. Maybe if De Bruyne, who talked about it on many occasions, gets together with the other guys on the overworked roster and says “OK, we’re gonna do this, we’re all gonna keep a public record and we’re all gonna decline to play when we reach a certain spot in the season, that he whether it’s too many games in the ‘critical zone’ or too many games in general.” If they all agree to do this in all the clubs involved and it happens transparently, no club will feel unduly penalised.

It would be a power play, of course, and it wouldn’t be popular. Some will say that their bodies can handle it, that not all players are created equal, that 45 games might be too much for some while 65 might be a breeze for others. Clubs and countries will bicker over who should deal with enforced rest. And that’s a ton to ask of those overworked superstars, too. But the simple reality is that there is no one else who can fight for them but themselves.

Economic realities are what they are; the same goes for the priorities of the vast majority of their colleagues. What if you wait for the governing bodies to do something about it? Well, might as well wait for Godot. (Hint: he never shows up.)