Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

How football reached breaking point: ‘This workload is not sustainable’

By Vaseline May27,2024

Judging by the accolades won over recent weeks, Phil Foden shone brighter than any other player in English football this season.

Manchester City’s silky midfielder excelled in a side who won their fourth consecutive Premier League title and were runners-up in the FA Cup, following a surprise defeat to Manchester United in Saturday’s final. A stellar personal campaign which has seen him voted player of the year by the Football Writers’ Association still has the potential to bring more silverware at the European Championship with England when that kicks off next month.

But it also means Foden’s relentless 2023-24 season might yet run until the final of that tournament on July 14; and, by that point, there is a chance he will have featured in 73 games for club and country since it all began almost a full year before with him appearing in all three matches on City’s pre-season tour to South Korea and Japan last July.

Then, after a three-week break, Foden will be asked to do it all again. Only with the potential for even more football next season.

City could play 75 times in 2024-25, once FIFA’s revamped Club World Cup and an expanded Champions League format are factored in. England, too, have space ringfenced for another 10 games on a calendar that is fast running out of room.

The congestion is an increasing source of friction.

“If you pour more liquid into the cup that’s already full, it will overflow,” said Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, last month when calling the changes for next season a “tipping point”.

Fresh criticisms were aimed at FIFA, who have scheduled the inaugural version of its new, revised and hugely expanded Club World Cup to run in the United States between June 15 and July 13 next year. Legal action has even been threatened by the global players’ union FIFPro and the World Leagues Association (WLA) unless those dates are changed.

Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, hit back at suggestions football’s global governing body is to blame for a saturated calendar during its Congress in Thailand last week, but a debate he attempted to dismiss as “futile” is sure to run and run.

FIFA president Infantino has overseen an expansion in the football calendar (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

“Everyone across the board understands it is a problem for the industry,” Maheta Molango, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ trade union in England, and a FIFPro board member, tells The Athletic. “We’ve got a situation we’ve never had before. It’s gone from a players’ problem, a union’s problem, to an industry problem. Everyone is conscious that this is not sustainable.

“Now players are managing (their effort in) games. I’ve had them tell me this. They don’t play 100 per cent, they try and play maybe 60 or 70 per cent and manage. Yet the fans pay full price. It would be like me paying to watch Beyonce but I don’t get to see her full show.

“This year is when people realise that all of it doesn’t fit. You look at the calendar and it’s not possible. It’s no longer a question of being a threat that’s coming down the line. It’s here.”

What’s also edging closer, Molango believes, is legal action from those exasperated by the creeping tide.

“That’s what I think will happen soon,” he says. “We’ve exhausted all the avenues. Even though I’m a lawyer, going down the legal route is never a good solution. But when people don’t listen, that’s all we can do.”

In announcing his retirement from international football in February last year, France centre-back Raphael Varane signed off with an evocative take on the demands placed upon elite players in the modern game.

“The very highest level is like a washing machine, you play all the time and you never stop,” Varane said. “Right now, I feel like I’m suffocating and that the player is gobbling up the man.”

Varane, then only 29, had given all he could for France. As well as helping his country win the 2018 World Cup, he was in the team as they finished as runners-up in 2022. Yet only nine days after that epic final against Argentina, because the Qatar-hosted tournament was played in the European winter to avoid the scorching summer heat in the Gulf state, Varane was back playing for Manchester United in the Premier League. Rinse and repeat.

Injuries have inhibited Varane during his three seasons at Old Trafford, limiting him to 95 United appearances, and Molango believes the defender’s views are shared by other elite players.

Raphael Varane complained about the demands made on players (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Foden is this season’s extreme example, already playing 61 competitive games, but there are others.

His international team-mate Declan Rice, the Arsenal midfielder, has played 58 times for club and country, adding to the 64 appearances he made in 2022-23 for West Ham and England. Arsenal and Germany forward Kai Havertz is another to have played 58 matches this term who is now heading for the Euros. Last season ended with Lautaro Martinez featuring in 73 games for Inter Milan and Argentina (including pre-season friendlies) — an epic run that saw the striker make 15 journeys involving a change of time zone.

Bruno Fernandes, the Manchester United captain, is another example of the sustained pressure to play.

Since the start of the 2020-21 season, he has made 256 appearances for the club and his country, Portugal. Even including three summer breaks, that amounts to Fernandez featuring in a game every 5.2 days across the four campaigns.

“We got to this point because people have only looked after their own interests,” says Molango. “Apple sells iPhones, we sell football, and they’ve forgotten that.

“The players are the assets of this industry and if you don’t look after your assets, you’ve got no industry. As much as they earn money, they have a limit to what they can do.

“I give the example of the Champions League final (between Manchester City and Inter Milan in June last year). It was a really poor show. Undoubtedly two amazing teams, with amazing players and managers. But (Kevin) De Bruyne is off (injured) after 36 minutes; Rodri, who’s a terrific athlete, has cramps after 60 minutes. What you end up seeing is a poor show. It should have been our Super Bowl, but it wasn’t.”

And that was before the increased number of games it will now take for a club to reach the Champions League final.

The new normal, beginning for title winners City and FA Cup winners United in the Community Shield on the weekend of August 10-11, is known to concern the elite players.

A FIFPro survey in 2022 detailed that 50 per cent of its members felt their season breaks were infringed upon by domestic or international commitments. The union has long called for a mandatory 28-day rest period following the conclusion of a season, but has been ignored. A standard PFA player’s contract outlines that clubs must give players five weeks off, with the expectation that at least three of those are taken consecutively.

The next English season will barely afford anyone the chance to catch their breath.

As well as the 38 Premier League fixtures (33 at weekends, four midweeks and one Bank Holiday game), there could be another six in the FA Cup and seven more in the Carabao Cup for a top-flight team going all the way in both competitions.

The Football Association did agree, controversially, to ease the potential burden by scrapping FA Cup replays from the first round onwards next season but the EFL is yet to cede ground on two-leg semi-finals in the Carabao Cup as it waits on a protracted financial settlement with the Premier League.

But that would only just be the start for those sides also playing European football.

The revised Champions League format will see 36 teams (up from 32) each play eight group games, rather than the current six, and a side finishing between ninth and 24th in the UEFA competition will have to go to a round of two-leg play-offs to try to win a place in the last 16. That could see clubs playing as many as 17 games in next season’s Champions League. The same format will also apply to the second-tier Europa League, but teams in the Conference League, UEFA’s third club competition, will still have only six group matches.

Fernandes is a near ever-present for Manchester United (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

No English team will have the added complication of UEFA’s pre-season Super Cup or FIFA’s annual Intercontinental Cup (rebadged from the old Club World Cup, held in December) next season, but Chelsea and Manchester City will be two of the 32 teams headed to the U.S. next summer for a competition that will be staged every four years. That, again, could bring a side another seven games.

It is the international windows – which are fixed in the FIFA calendar until 2030 – that accentuate the problems.

As well as the traditional 10-day spaces reserved in September, October, November and March, there is one at the start of June for friendlies and the final stages of UEFA’s Nations League competition. The semi-finals of that will be on June 4 and 5 next year, just days after the Champions League final on May 31, with the final on June 8 — a week before the Club World Cup kicks off.

The “washing machine”, as Varane called it, is going to be spinning fast by then and will quicken again because of the next Africa Cup of Nations, which is still without a confirmed date. There have been proposals to play the Morocco-hosted event next July and August or maybe in January/February 2026.

“It’s the accumulation,” says Molango. “You go and talk to FIFA and they will tell you in isolation the Club World Cup makes sense. Then you talk to UEFA and they’ll say what they do makes sense. Go to the Premier League and it’s the same. Then you’ve got clubs doing post-season tours, and to them it makes sense.

“The calendars are not synchronised. That’s the problem. But for the first time, we see that overlap. The Club World Cup has just pushed things forward to see that overlap in practice. That has been the trigger point.”

This is an argument where nobody wants to give ground. Self-interest rules.

The Premier League, that domestic behemoth, has no plans to cut its number of clubs from 20 to 18, to match the top flights in two of Europe’s other five elite leagues in Germany and France, while UEFA’s attempts to maintain relevance in an era stalked by breakaway Super League plans has brought an expanded Champions League and greater financial returns for those involved.

Individual clubs also have their own motivations to play money-spinning extra games.

As well as Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United heading off to play friendlies in Australia within hours of this Premier League season finishing, a host of Premier League clubs will embark on U.S. pre-season tours less than two weeks after the European Championship and Copa America finish on July 14.

FIFA will argue it is different, focusing primarily on growing the game around the world. To do that, it says, more revenue is required through more competitions, including the revamped Club World Cup, which has the backing of many of the 32 teams set to take part in its first playing next summer.

“Ultimately, everyone is trying to milk the same cow,” says Molango. “Finding the balance between multiple stakeholders is difficult. But your starting point has to be the people who are producing that show. That doesn’t seem to be a priority, especially for the governing bodies.”

FIFPro, which represents over 60,000 professional footballers worldwide, is familiar with the battle ahead.

It has long attempted to push back against the rising demands on the game’s elite players and, in 2021, proposed players should play no more than five games back-to-back to limit the threats of injury and fatigue.

City’s Foden, as a fresh example of those calls being ignored, featured in nine back-to-back games for club and country between October 9 and November 6 last year.

The modern era threatens to drain the batteries of emerging talent over time. FIFPro’s numbers, detailed in their Workload Report for 2022-23, say Jude Bellingham had played 14,445 minutes of senior football before his 20th birthday. Wayne Rooney, another English prodigy from an earlier era, clocked only 10,989. Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, is said to have played 37 per cent more minutes than fellow France striker Thierry Henry did at the same age.

Then there is Pedri, Barcelona and Spain’s boy wonder. He is not 22 until November but has already made more than 200 appearances for club and country. Injuries are now stunting his once-rapid development, hardly surprising given, for example, he played in the European Championship and Olympics back-to-back in the summer of 2021, starting 12 games out of 12. Molango calls Pedri’s case “heartbreaking”, and a warning that must be heeded.

Pedri played two major tournaments in the summer of 2021 (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

“We need to let the science talk,” he says. “We need to have experts tell us the maximum number of games someone can play at the peak level. This can differ slightly depending on the age, but I can already tell you it’s between 50 and 60 per season.

“The second question becomes: what’s the maximum number of games back-to-back that you can play? The science probably says about six.

“Then the question becomes: what’s the minimum number of rest days in a summer? — full rest, and then pre-season. That is probably close to four weeks.

“When you look at those three things, then you can try and figure out a way forward.”

FIFPro and, by extension, the PFA is forming unofficial alliances with domestic competitions such as the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Serie A in Italy. Although there are clubs who have pushed to pursue increased UEFA and FIFA competitions and the money that accompanies them, the resistance projected by the Premier League’s Masters last month illustrates a threat they intend to confront.

Molango shares Masters’ misgivings over the consultation FIFA insists it carried out. “It’s not about having an idea and doing it no matter what,” he says. “You have to find a compromise and maybe, at the end of that, it’s a no.”

That brings the debate back to an email, signed off by the WLA — which Masters chairs — and FIFPro, sent to FIFA urging change to the international football calendar… or else.

“Legal action comes when we’ve exhausted all the diplomatic avenues. We’re at that point,” Molango says. “It’s not enough to say the calendar is complicated because, when it came to adding games, they didn’t think about that. They just added.

“We see (sport) unions in the U.S. are very strict about (how many) practice sessions you can have, how many games you can play. We’ll end up in that direction. Sometimes you have to protect the players against themselves, because they love to play but it’s to their detriment.

“It has gone too far.”

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: John Bradford)

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