BERN (Reuters) - Footballers are being pushed to the limit as competition organisers try to squeeze the usual number of fixtures into a shorter period of time in the wake of the COVID-19 stoppage.
Yet, while club coaches and players protest, neither continental federations nor domestic leagues are willing to cut down the number of games being played to relieve the mental and physical stress on the sport’s main actors.
“Everybody recognises the problems but taking action is very slow,” FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told Reuters.
The last European season only finished in mid-August and this season started in mid-September, around one month later than usual.
The Champions League group stage, featuring six match days, is being played over eight weeks instead of the usual three months while, in Europe, the September, October and November international breaks have featured three matches each instead of two.
“Too many games, impossible to recover, when you know that this year is a weird one (Covid). No proper time off, (personally I had only eight days off) no proper pre-season and (then) the crazy schedule,” said Zenit St Petersburg and Croatia defender Dejan Lovren on Twitter.
On Sunday, Italy were without 20 players due to either injury, fatigue or COVID-19 related issues when they hosted Poland in the Nations League.
Back in March, there was a remarkable show of solidarity as UEFA agreed to postpone Euro 2020 for one year to allow the domestic seasons to take priority.
However, such goodwill has long since dried up. Inter Milan were involved in an angry exchange with the Chilean national team last week with the two blaming each other over injuries to Alexis Sanchez.
“The player has encountered a physical problem in almost all of his call-ups to his national team,” said Inter after Chile coach Reinaldo Rueda complained that the Serie A club did not look after him “as well as we do.”
International matches are a soft target when it comes to discussing which games should be cut.
But try suggesting that to North Macedonia and Scotland after their dramatic Euro 2020 qualification, or Comoros Islands and Equatorial Guinea after remarkable upsets in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying.
“Many players want to play for their country, as long as it’s safe,” said Baer-Hoffmann.
Replacing the Champions League group stage with two-leg knockout ties would have removed four match days from the calendar but the idea was never even contemplated. UEFA did not reply to a request for comment.
“Coaches and players are realising that not taking the health of players seriously does cost them from a sporting and commercial perspective,” said Baer-Hoffmann. “But you can’t expect that competition reform will get you there, we are not going to slash 20 games from the calendar.”
A more realistic solution would be to cap the number of matches individual players can take part in during a season and introduce rules about close season and mid-season breaks.
“Competition organisers and clubs need to come together and talk about load management,” he said. “This means managed breaks and a maximum number of games for players.”
An ideal number of matches per season could be “somewhere in the fifties,” he said. “I think that would make a huge difference because we know some players are in the 70s.”
That could also open up new opportunities for players.
“Squad management in the clubs is changing,” he said. “If you are one of those elite clubs, you will need a deeper squad and that means more players and that in turn means more high quality jobs, which is a positive.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis
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