World Cup schedule likely to harm player welfare and diminish quality of domestic league matches

FIFPRO, the union representing 65,000 soccer players worldwide, has warned that “unprecedented work” for players could have long-term negative effects ahead of the World Cup kicking off in Qatar on Sunday.

World Cups since 1990 have seen an average of 31 days of preparation time before the tournament and 37 days of playing time afterwards, but the different figures for this World Cup are seven days and qualifying days, according to FIFPRO.

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“The drastic reduction in preparation and recovery times before and after the 2022 FIFA World Cup poses a serious risk to the health of the players and hinders their performance,” the association said in a statement published on Tuesday.

With the risk of fatigue, “There’s not enough time to prepare players who haven’t played much,” says Darren Burgess, a performance specialist who has worked with Liverpool and Arsenal among other clubs.

FIFPRO also highlighted potential risks to mental health and disruption to family life.

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“The current situation cannot continue,” FIFPRO said. “The industry needs a greater effort to establish the security of the players’ load and a responsible calendar solution that protects the health of the player and supports the performance of the player.”


Why is Qatar different?

The 2022 World Cup has been criticized from many angles, especially regarding human rights in Qatar.

However, another source of contention is the disruption to the regular football calendar. The tournament takes place in November and December, with most leagues suspended around the world, instead of the usual June and July season at the end of the club season.

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Most of the tournament’s 800 players play their club football in Europe, with the Premier League sending the most, over 120. There is a week-long gap between the final league game and the start of the tournament.

James Maddison


Declan Rice checks on James Maddison during Leicester’s match against West Ham (Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

“This leaves little opportunity for conditioning and strategic preparations with the national team, friendly matches to prepare for improvement, or recovery after a short period of time. injuries,” says FIFPRO.

There is little time to cool down for those who will play in the finals at Lusail Stadium on December 18 and play in the League Cup on December 20 or the Premier League on December 26.

(A few players, for example those who play domestic football in South America, will come to Qatar at the end of their league season.)


It is very crowded

FIFPRO has compiled detailed statistics on the players’ careers between July 2021 and October 2021. The team whose players played the most combined minutes was Portugal, followed closely by Brazil. Both teams have played more than 30,000 minutes in the average season.

Other countries with more combined activity in the tournament were England, France, Argentina, Germany, Belgium and Spain.

South Korea and Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min were highlighted as examples. He played more than 600 minutes “back-to-back” in the first 23 days of October. “Back-to-back” games are those with less than five days of recovery time, for example a weekend league game followed by a midweek cup game. This is associated with a higher risk of injury.

Other nominees include France’s Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, both of world football’s top stars who have played an extraordinary number of minutes for their age. Mbappe’s 27,000 minutes of football is one of the highest ever recorded for a 23-year-old.

The general secretary of FIFPRO, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, used the example of the English pair Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling who have played a very high number of games in several seasons and have dropped in form.

Sadio Mane has appeared in 93 competitive games since the start of last season, according to FIFPRO statistics, among the top of all players in the tournament. This includes numerous trips between his club team in Europe, World Cup qualifiers in Africa, and Liverpool’s pre-season tour of America. During a 46-day period in March and April 2022, while Liverpool were competing in four different trophies, Mane amassed 1,151 minutes.

He was injured in Bayern Munich’s match against Werder Bremen on November 8 and is a doubt for Qatar despite being included in Senegal’s squad.

Sadio Mane


Sadio Mane went down injured at Bayern Munich earlier this month (Photo: Stefan Matzke/sapics/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s underloaded

A different problem is “underloading”. FIFPRO has identified four of the six qualifying teams from Africa and four of our six from Asia where players have played less than 20,000 minutes combined.

More rest may seem like a good thing but experts show that it is not always the case, explaining that in a regular tournament game players who have few minutes at their club will use relationships and training to ensure that they are good as a team – partners who play regularly.

Burgess says this can be a particular problem in extreme temperatures like those in Qatar.


Influence

The most obvious thing in all of this is the risk of injury ruining a player’s tournament.

Burgess says the incidence of soft tissue injuries, which “eat your body’s ability to recover”, appears to be a particular problem at the World Cup.

FIFPRO has also highlighted players who spend long periods away from those who can provide love and support to help them get through tough physical schedules.

FIFPRO experts described the “post-tournament blues”, where the players try to regain their senses after disappointing results and a tiring schedule.

These factors can combine to eventually shorten an athlete’s career as the individual cannot sustain exercise for as long.

Although football fans will be worried that all this will combine to make Qatar a bad tournament to watch, with tired players wandering the pitch in hot conditions, Baer-Hoffmann says this will not happen.

The World Cup is the ultimate event in world football so everyone will be incredibly motivated to “leave everything on the pitch”, he argues, with players tapping into extreme reserves of mental and physical stamina.

The impact could be long and wide, having a major impact on the second half of clubs’ seasons, and potentially curtailing some of the most exciting footballers’ careers.


What can be done?

FIFPRO believes that things must change urgently to protect the players and to maintain the quality and integrity of the world game.

It requires mandatory off-season and off-season breaks, to protect the players’ well-being.

FIFPRO believes that football should be encouraged in other sports that give players a chance to rest.

For example, NBA teams have conditioning staffs that tell head coaches how many minutes a certain player should be on the court in a given game in order to maintain the player’s long-term interest. Burgess joked darkly that he wouldn’t get very far trying that in football.

If players continue to be forced to do more and more, many may not be able to endure the minutes on the field but with the inevitable decline in sports competition.

A terrible phenomenon has been observed in the NBA where the regular season games and the playoffs feel like separate events, with the playoffs being played with intensity while the regular season games are slower and less exciting.

FIFPRO experts think this could be the result of football’s overload problem – there are more games, but fewer worth watching.

(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images)



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