This might surprise you, but not all footballers love football.
There is an assumption among football fans that players must love the game as much as we do. How can you be so good at something and not live and breathe it? Players usually hold banter for openly talking about their lack of fondness for the game - seeing it merely as a job rather than a passion.
But today, footballers have more than a few reasons to fall out of love with the game. Whether it’s the inadequate responses to racism and other forms of discrimination in the sport or the fact that a player’s mental health is often an afterthought, the same issues keep rearing their ugly heads.
Yet the one issue that doesn’t seem to be going away with fixture congestion.
FIFPRO – the organisation that represents footballers worldwide – released a report which highlights how dangerous the increasing strain on players is to career longevity, mental health and wellbeing.
The report, titled ‘Extreme Calendar Congestion: The Adverse Effects on Player Health & Wellbeing’, was released at the end of last season and looks at the impact of the first-ever mid-season World Cup in Qatar. It warns that overlapping competition schedules and all the travel that comes with it means the risk of injury and deteriorating performance will only increase.
On an individual level, the findings are more concerning. The report details that some of the brightest young ballers have already played way more competitive minutes at their age than their predecessors – increasing the risk of long-term injuries that could disrupt and even shorten their careers.
At 22-years-old, Vinícius Júnior has already played 18,876 minutes for Real Madrid and Brazil. More than double Ronaldinho’s minutes at the same age. Pedri made a whopping 73 appearances for club and country during the 2020/21 season and has amassed over 12,000 minutes, which is 20.25% more than Xavi did at the same age. Kylian Mbappé has played nearly 50% more minutes than Thierry Henry did at 24. The same goes for Jude Bellingham when compared to Wayne Rooney.
“If one thing is clear, it’s that this desire to bulk out the football calendar is motivated mainly by money.”
And that’s not all. Insurance group Howden published its European Football Injury Index for the 2022/23 season and found that the Qatar World Cup led to players from Europe’s top five leagues spending an average of eight days longer on the treatment table than the previous season. Ankle injuries were up 170%, calf and shin injuries 200% and hamstring injuries saw a 130% spike in just one season.
All of this contributes to a working environment that already pushes players beyond their extraordinary limits. Football’s latest bout of fixture congestion is likely to test those limits even more.
Some players are robust and can handle these demands from a younger age better than previous generations could. But the increase in long-term injuries across the top level means this overload of games could force players away from football much earlier than anticipated.
In a sport where players and managers are pressured to be obedient in the media, the most famous of them have grown more outspoken about the sheer number of games in today’s footballing calendar.
Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Raphael Varane, Bernardo Silva and many others at the elite level have expressed real concern over the long-term mental and physical impact of being involved in so many competitions. Dani Carvajal went as far as saying players would take a pay cut if it meant playing fewer games. And for good reason.
Since the pandemic, players have had less and less time off the pitch to recover, which has created a knock-on effect felt in the present day. The Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ meant the remaining 92 matches of the 2019/20 season were packed into a five-week period from June 17 to July 26.
Not only was this a time where players were normally supposed to be on a summer break, it also meant just under a quarter of the season was crammed into the same time frame it would usually have taken to play half of those remaining games.
The next season then started a month later than planned, meaning even more cramming ahead of the deferred Euro 2020 tournament which kicked off just 19 days after the 2020/21 season ended. Throw in the first-ever mid-season World Cup in 2022 and it’s easy to spot a problematic pattern forming.
All the while, we had the proposed European Super League, UEFA’s expansion of the Champions League and FIFA’s proposal to make the World Cup a two-year competition rather than a four-year one. If one thing is clear, it’s that this desire to bulk out the football calendar is motivated mainly by money.
The maths is simple: more games equals more revenue for football’s governing bodies. But it also means more potential for serious injuries – particularly for younger players.
But by looking at older players, we can still see the makings of a chronic issue in football that only looks set to worsen. Luis Suarez recently admitted he walks with a limp, has to take three pills and an injection before every game, and believes he won’t be able to enjoy a kickabout with his friends and family in five years. While there are those who might glorify this level of pain and chalk it up as a minor price to pay for the life of a modern footballer, it is simply not the way an athlete – even in his 30s – should be living his life.
He is not the first or the last player to play through injuries. As long as football continues to associate a player’s commitment to their willingness to ignore their bodies breaking down, distressing accounts like Suarez’s will become the norm.
The more games there are to play, the greater the damage – not just to the players’ bodies, but to their enjoyment of the game and their lives too.
“How long before this unsustainable, gluttonous hunger for more games forces even more players to walk away from the game?”
We already have many examples of players stepping away from football to preserve their mental health. Marvin Sordell, David Bentley and Michael Johnson are just a few players in the men’s game who retired early for similar reasons. Carlos Tevez, Ben White and Gareth Bale have all admitted football is not the be-all and end-all despite reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
Football is already at a place where its protagonists are being pushed away. But how long before this unsustainable, gluttonous hunger for more games forces even more players to walk away from the game? How long before the next study that shows players careers and peaks have been shortened because of excessive playing time?
If their bodies don’t give way, their passion will – which is perhaps an even sadder way to bow out.
In women’s football, players are even more likely to grow disillusioned with the game. The pressures faced by female footballers are much greater, with those who don’t play at the top level having to juggle full-time careers outside of the game while training multiple times a week for minimal pay.
Nicoline Sorensen recently announced her retirement at the age of 26 because she no longer enjoys playing the sport she spent her life preparing to be great at.
Add fixture congestion to the equation and we could be heading to a place where more women choose to preserve their peace than fight against a system that fails to properly safeguard its most important assets. An increase in fixtures has also contributed to many women in football suffering ACL injuries. Girls and young women haven’t been conditioned like boys and young men have from a young age. Strength and conditioning is almost non-existent at both the grassroots and academy-level for girls.
The explosion and expansion of women’s football in recent years has seen players go from playing weekly league matches to sometimes three matches a week. Their bodies can’t keep up with the number of games they have to play. According to Sky Sport, between 25 and 30 players – enough for an entire squad – were missing the Women’s World Cup this summer because of ACL tears.
As fans, our exposure to football often revolves around the spectacle of the matchday – which is just the tip of the iceberg of a footballer’s experience. At the end of the day, this is a job. And like every job, there must be provisions in place to ensure the safety of its employees.
Football is not only doing the opposite, it’s also ignoring the pleas for change in real time in pursuit of more revenue. It is baffling that a sport which requires its athletes to be in top physical and mental condition would treat its players in this way – especially when they are the most important ingredients in this meal we tuck into every week.
If football doesn’t listen to its players and managers about fixture congestion, we will soon arrive at a point where players will have to give up on the game – either through injury or loss of passion – rather than try to fix it for the generations to come.
That is a future for football we should all be united against.