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Footballers are playing an ‘obscene’ amount of games. Will a World Cup every two years make it worse?

By Matias Grez, CNN

Not long after his transfer from Sporting to Manchester United, it quickly became apparent that Bruno Fernandes was the Premier League club’s most influential player.

In a new study on player burnout released by players’ union FIFPro, which represents more then 65,000 footballers worldwide, it found that the Portuguese star — who is also an integral part of his national team — “became one of the most ‘overused’ players in world football.”

Even United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted in an interview to ESPN that he maybe “overplayed” Fernandes — who featured 58 times for United as it finished second in the Premier League and reached the Europa League final last season — but insisted it was because he was “so important for us.”

This season looks to be no different and with United still competing in three competitions, coupled with Fernandes’ World Cup qualifying commitments for Portugal, a conservative estimate could see the 27-year-old taking part in 60 matches.

But this is far from an issue that is exclusive to Fernandes and United.

The football calendar’s grueling schedule and the physical and mental toll it takes on players has being the subject of much discussion for several years now.

READ: World’s best soccer stars are playing too much, says players’ union

It’s an issue that has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as leagues around the world struggled to complete truncated seasons before beginning the following campaign almost immediately.

Add in the current international schedule — which is seeing confederations cramming in more matches than ever before owing to fixture cancellations due to the pandemic — and players at the top end of the sport are now experiencing the worst calendar congestion of their careers.

‘An obscene amount of games’

It’s not only playing an inordinate numbers of minutes every week that is affecting star footballers. It’s also the long-haul international flights through multiple time zones, a particular problem for those traveling from Europe to South America and Asia for international duty.

As of 2024, football will need a new calendar as the current format expires. However, rather than reducing the number of games to prevent players from burning out, current proposals would see footballers potentially play more matches at both club and international level.

This is due to the expanded Champions League format touted by UEFA, European football’s governing body, that would result in an extra 100 matches per season, and the plans put forward by FIFA, world football’s governing body, to host a World Cup every two years instead of four.

Darren Burgess, a performance coach who previously worked at Liverpool and Arsenal, recalls his time with the Gunners when trying to manage players’ workload.

“Certainly in my role, most recently at Arsenal, where we made Europa League semifinal and then the Europa League final in consecutive years, including a Carling Cup final, we just played an obscene amount of games,” Burgess said.

While UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) have criticized FIFA for its plans, UEFA has itself been criticized by leading officials from Europe’s biggest leagues over its own proposals.

FIFPro says football’s governing bodies need to see the bigger picture when it comes to player burnout.

“What I think is quite interesting … is that our arguments are always brought to the table by the other stakeholders when somebody else makes a proposal,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer Hoffmann said.

“So when do you need more Champions League games, then all of a sudden ‘well, the players are playing too much,’ say the leagues and say FIFA. If you want a second World Cup, ‘oh, the players are playing too much,’ says UEFA.

“Now, I guess at some point, if you hold them accountable to this argument, then you’re going to have to force them to hold it against themselves, too.”

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who has been one of the leading voices for FIFA in its push for a biennial World Cup, has previously insisted they are “very conscious” of not increasing the number of matches for players.

“What is most important for me is more meaningful games,” he said recently, as he outlined his “Football for Tomorrow” proposal. “We want to give the fans what fans demand today, and that is meaningful games. We want to respond to that expectation.

“You have 20% national team football and 80% club football and we want to maintain that balance, but we just want to reorganise it in a more efficient way.

“This means regrouping and reducing qualifiers in national team football, creating longer periods for players to remain with their clubs and to establish a guaranteed rest period for players every year.”

‘Simply unsustainable’

Baer-Hoffmann was speaking at a roundtable organized by FIFPro, in which the union proposed a new plan that would see players take planned, compulsory breaks during the season to protect their physical and mental health.

The proposal comes off the back of a FIFPro report that the union says shows footballers are currently playing an alarming number of minutes in what it calls the “critical zone” — playing at least 45 minutes in matches that have less than five days rest between them.

FIFPro says playing an excessive number of minutes in this critical zone can greatly increase a player’s chances of injury and even shorten their career.

Depending on the regularity of these enforced breaks — whether footballers sit out after as few as three consecutive games in the critical zone or five — players could miss between two and eight games per season across club and international duty.

While it may sound radical to many football fans, similar concepts are often applied in other sports.

In the NBA, for example, where players regularly play on back-to-back nights and every other night throughout an 82-game season, franchise stars commonly have rest periods scheduled into their seasons, most commonly referred to as load management.

FIFPro’s report is based on data from about 40,000 appearances by a sample of 265 male players from 44 leagues between June 2018 and August 2021 and says these compulsory mid-season breaks will benefit players and teams in the long term.

For those players that combined club and international duty, the report found that 67% of their minutes last season were played in the critical zone, up from 61% in each of the previous two seasons.

In Fernandes’ case, the midfielder never dropped below 67% between November 2020 and April 2021 and was regularly at or near 100%.

“What we see with these high workload numbers across a number of indicators, be that back-to-back [matches] or travel, that this is simply unsustainable for the player, but also for the game and for the competitions,” Alexander Bielefeld, FIFPro Head of Global Policy, said.

“So the question is really how you smartly regulate that. The report doesn’t propose solutions to the regulation itself, but to assume that just smart managing and smart coaching does the trick.”

Bielefeld says that currently the “pressure is too high” on everybody involved in football to achieve consistently good results for them to be able to leave out star players for certain matches, but says it is crucial to start the conversation ahead of the new calendar.

How would a manager or head coach react to being told their star player needs to sit out the next match? How would a fan who has traveled to Paris to watch Lionel Messi or Manchester to watch Cristiano Ronaldo react after spending hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to watch their favorite player?

Burgess believes real forward planning before the season has started could largely negate these issues.

“Part of my role with Mr [Arsene] Wenger and Mr [Unai] Emery, the coaches for the two seasons, were to to talk to them about that very issue, about planning and about these players,” he said. “Some players can play, some players can’t play.

“So if these rules are in place at the start of the season, then it allows the high performance coach, the doctor, the coach and the fan to understand that this is being done to promote performance and to protect the players so that you can maximize the exposure of the player to the most critical games.

“So as long as these guidelines are in place, then that does allow you to plan.”

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