Soccer players always want to be playing, right? So everyone should be happy with the game’s expanded tournaments, extra matches and increased workload, right? Wrong.
The push for more at the top end of the spectrum has seen players’ workloads become unsustainable, with load-burden a direct cause of injuries in the women’s game, according to a report published by FIFPRO in December. A swell of ACL injuries — which, while multi-faceted, are linked to the increased pressures on the body and mind that come with so many games — is a clear sign that there is too much football.
In the men’s game, players like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, plus Barcelona duo Pedri and Gavi, have suffered the effects of an increasing schedule and are speaking up. “I had three hamstrings in a row but they were nowhere near the same place,” the 32-year-old De Bruyne told the Independent. “I had so much scar tissue that it could snap at any moment … I want to play every game but I know in the back of my mind I need to take care of myself.”
PSG star Kylian Mbappé said this week in an interview with GQ that European football is beginning to mirror the NBA season and, though the 24-year-old wasn’t necessarily against the idea of 70-game seasons, he warned of the effects of load management on players and that the spectacle for fans would be impacted.
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In the women’s game, the calendar for players who go deep in domestic and European competitions has become more congested — arguably as a result of FIFA/UEFA’s desire to capitalise on its new-found status to try and grow it globally and, of course, make more money. But those who have to juggle international football and the rigors that come with added travel — for example, Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and Arsenal’s contingent of Australia internationals when they have to fly for home games — see the risk of injury multiply.
Between matches and travel, there is little time to adequately rest and recover. Yes, footballers are professionals who work closely with a club or national team’s medical staff and are (or should be) in peak physical condition, but everyone is human and the need for recovery is important.
England and Barcelona star Keira Walsh was highlighted as one of several examples in another of FIFPRO’s studies, the World Cup Workload Journey Report. Across the period in question (Aug. 1, 2022 to June 2, 2023), the midfielder had just 10 off-season break days, while seven came during the season — a long way from the recommended minimums of 28 and 14 days respectively.
Continuous summer international tournaments, and delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mean the top national teams in Europe are now expected to play back-to-back-to-back from the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) to the 2021 European Championships (held in 2022) to the 2023 World Cup, to the 2024 Olympics and then Euro 2025. The only nation that currently runs the risk of five-successive international summers is Netherlands, who played at the 2020 Olympics in Japan and are one win away from a spot at this summer’s Paris Games. All while the squad sizes are kept the same.
Indeed, while there was naturally disappointment at their failure to qualify, there was also a heavy sigh of relief that came with England’s elimination from the UEFA Nations League (and therefore potential qualification via the final playoffs for this summer’s Olympics.) As England’s injured captain Leah Williamson told the Daily Telegraph earlier this week: “It’s horrendous that one of the first things that popped into my head about the Olympics was, ‘at least they’ll probably all get another two or three years on their career now, because they’ll get a summer off. Everyone needs a rest and now they’ll get one.'”
In the Women’s Super League, where the majority of the Lionesses’ squad play, there is a 22-game league season, augmented with both the FA Cup and League Cup — the latter of which further congests the schedule with a group phase played by those not competing in the Champions League.
Teams struggling with multiple injuries isn’t that new in women’s football — Arsenal’s last title winning season in 2018-19, or Liverpool in 2015, for example — but Lyon were without 11 key players at the start of last season, and that’s more than just normal wear and tear. What we’re seeing is cumulative fatigue and it’s enough that players are speaking out about it themselves.
“Nowadays we get to October and girls are saying, ‘I’m tired,’ because you’re carrying so much from the previous season,” Williamson said. “We are driving ourselves into the ground with it, so some sort of solution needs to be found soon, in terms of the schedule, otherwise it’s not sustainable.
“I don’t want football to get to a point in 10 years’ time where actually it’s a squad of 40 players and it’s bit like NFL [which allows unlimited substitutions], or you have a first-half team and a second-half team, because we’re having to rotate because no player can sustain that all year round.”
With a tweak in FIFA’s international match calendar brought in this year, national teams will reconvene and play a pair of matches in July, just ahead of the Olympics. Although some domestic leagues play through the summer (in Scandinavia and the United States, for example), for those that use a September-May calendar, that window falls when players should be granted some respite.
Fatigue is felt far beyond heavy legs and overworked muscles, as the lack of proper time off leads to mental burnout too. The schedule simply does not allow players to decompress and switch off.
In a column for The Guardian earlier this week, Norway and Lyon attacker Ada Hegerberg, who was named UEFA Player of the Year in 2016 at the age of 21 and then picked up the Ballon d’Or in 2018, wrote: “Many were looking at this summer as a summer of liberation — for our bodies and our minds. But no.
“There are many different causes of injuries but if we are overworking players, not giving them the appropriate amount of rest and recovery time, and not providing them with the setup that can match the level of the demands being placed on them physically and mentally, then the risk to player health is increasing exponentially.”
In recent years, those in the women’s game have watched injuries rise alongside the increased workload, from muscular issues that suggest overloading, to the more serious ACL tear that is far more complex. (“Step By Step” — a documentary series released by Arsenal that chronicles the rehab of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema — brings some incredible insight into the mental aspect as well as the physical.)
The minutes continue to mount and, despite their claims to be looking into the calendar and the increased workload for players, FIFA and UEFA only seem to be jamming more games into a congested schedule. From the promise of a Women’s Club World Cup, to another Champions League tweak that will bring in a secondary competition (a Europa League equivalent), the powers that be have made their position more than clear when it comes to where they value player welfare in relation to increased revenue. But things can’t go on the way they are.
In Williamson’s words: “It’s impossible. It’s unsustainable.”