FIFPRO, the organization representing 65,000 professional footballers worldwide, has warned that the “unprecedented” workload of players could have long-term adverse effects ahead of the World Cup kick-off in Qatar on Sunday .
World Cups since 1990 have seen an average of 31 days of preparation time before tournaments and 37 days of recovery time after, but the respective figures for this World Cup are seven days and good days, according to FIFPRO.
“Dramatically reduced preparation and recovery periods before and after this 2022 FIFA World Cup pose a worrying threat to player health and hamper performance optimization,” the organization said in a report released on Tuesday.
In addition to the risk of exhaustion, there’s not enough time to condition players who haven’t played much, says Darren Burgess, a high performance specialist who has worked with Liverpool and Arsenal among other teams.
FIFPRO also highlighted the potential toll on mental health and disruption of family life.
“The current situation cannot continue,” says FIFPRO. “The industry needs a much greater collective effort to establish effective player workload safeguards and a responsible scheduling solution that protects player health and supports player performance.”
Why is Qatar different?
The 2022 World Cup has been criticized from many angles, including in relation to human rights in Qatar.
However, another source of controversy is the disruption to the usual club football schedule. The tournament takes place in November and December, with most leagues suspended around the world, rather than the usual June and July schedule at the end of the club season.
The majority of the tournament’s 800 players play their club football in Europe, with the Premier League sending the most, over 120. There is just a week’s gap between the last league game and the start of the tournament .
“It leaves little room for conditioning and tactical preparation with the national team, friendlies to optimize preparation, or short-term recovery. injuries,” says FIFPRO.
There is much less recovery time for those who will play the final at the Lusail stadium on December 18 and then potentially be in action in the Coupe de la Ligue on December 20 or the Premier League on December 26.
(A minority of players, for example those playing domestic football in South America, will come to Qatar at the end of their league season.)
FIFPRO compiled detailed statistics on player workload between July 2021 and October 2021. The team whose players had played the most collective minutes was Portugal, closely followed by Brazil. Both teams played over 30,000 minutes during the measured period.
Other nations with a high collective workload heading into the tournament were England, France, Argentina, Germany, Belgium and Spain.
South Korea and Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min were cited as examples. He played more than 600 “consecutive” minutes in the first 23 days of October. “Back-to-back” matches are those with less than five days of recovery time, for example a weekend league match followed by a midweek cup match. This is associated with a higher risk of injury.
Others singled out include France’s Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, two young superstars at the pinnacle of world football who have played an extraordinary number of minutes for their age. Mbappe’s 27,000 minutes of senior football is one of the highest ever for a 23-year-old.
FIFPRO General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann took the example of the English pair Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling who played a very large number of matches over several seasons and experienced a decline in form.
Sadio Mane has made 93 competitive appearances since the start of last season, according to FIFPRO figures, among the highest of any player in the tournament. This included a large amount of travel between his club team in Europe, World Cup qualifiers in Africa and Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the United States. Over a 46-day period between March and April 2022, as Liverpool battled for four different trophies, Mane racked up 1,151 minutes.
He picked up the injury in Bayern Munich’s game against Werder Bremen on November 8 and is a doubt for Qatar despite being included in the Senegal squad.
A different problem is that of “underloading”. FIFPRO has identified four of the six qualified teams from Africa and four of the six teams from Asia where players have played less than 20,000 minutes combined.
More rest might sound like a good thing, but experts suggest that’s not always the case, pointing out that in a typical tournament, players who have had fewer minutes for their club will use friendlies and training to conditioning to ensure they are as ready as the team. friends who played regularly.
Burgess says that could be a particular problem in extreme temperatures like Qatar’s.
The most obvious downside to all of this is the risk of injury ruining a player’s tournament.
Burgess says the incidence of soft tissue injuries, which “eat away at your body’s ability to recover”, appears to be a particular problem heading into this World Cup.
FIFPRO has also highlighted that gamers spend a lot of time away from those who can provide them with the love and support needed to get them through grueling physical schedules.
FIFPRO experts have described the ‘post-tournament blues’, where players struggle to recover mentally after disappointing results and a grueling schedule.
These things can all combine to ultimately shorten a player’s career as individuals cannot sustain physical exertion for such a long time.
Although football fans fear this will all combine to make Qatar a mediocre tournament to watch, with exhausted players walking around the pitch in hot conditions, Baer-Hoffmann says that won’t necessarily be the case.
The World Cup is the ultimate event in world football, so everyone will be incredibly motivated to ‘leave it all on the pitch’, he argues, with players tapping into extreme reserves of mental and physical resilience.
The impact is likely to be longer and wider, with a big impact on the second half of club seasons, as well as potentially curtailing the careers of some of the world’s most exciting footballers.
What can be done?
FIFPRO believes that things need to change urgently to protect players and preserve the quality and integrity of the global game.
He wants more enforced breaks within seasons and between seasons, to protect players’ well-being.
FIFPRO believes that football should learn from other sports that give players more breathing space.
For example, NBA teams have a conditioning staff that tells head coaches how many minutes a particular player needs to be on the court in a given game to safeguard the player’s long-term interests. Burgess joked that he wouldn’t have gone far to try that in football.
If players continue to be forced to do more and more, many may be able to physically endure the minutes on the pitch, albeit with an inevitable drop in intensity and athletic competitiveness.
A disturbing precedent highlighted is in the NBA where regular season games and playoffs look like different events, with playoffs played at a higher intensity while regular season games are slower and less exciting.
FIFPRO experts believe this could be the eventual consequence of football’s excessive workload problem – more and more matches, but fewer games worth watching.
(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images)