“We had a meeting last week with the FA. They recommended from the referees new decisions and rules. From the managers and players, we have shared our concerns for many years now that there are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for players physical and mental well-being.
Despite our previous feedbacks, they have now recommended for next season: longer games, more intensity, and less emotions to be shown by players. We just want to be in good condition on the pitch to give 100% to our club and fans. Why are our opinions not being heard?
As a player I feel very privileged to do the job I love every day but I feel these changes are damaging our game. We want to be at our maximum level, the best we can be and put on amazing performances for fans to celebrate every week. I believe it is important that we, players and managers, highlight these important issues as we want to protect the game we love and give the fans our best.
Those were the words of Raphael Varane on August 7. At 30 years old, Varane has delivered a sensational career at club and international level, winning four Champions League titles and three La Liga titles before playing a key role in Manchester United’s resurgence and EFL Cup win under Erik ten Hag last season. He has played in three World Cups for France, winning the 2018 edition, but he elected to call it quits on his national team career after a decade with Les Bleus following their loss to Argentina in the 2022 World Cup Final.
Several footballers including Varane are being forced to make tough decisions — whether to continue playing with their national team or to preserve their body and focus on club football. The reason behind this is simple: football’s governing bodies have continued to push these players to the brink, expending their vital energy and putting them at a severe risk of suffering a long-term injury.
In the two weeks that have followed since Varane’s statement on Twitter, we have seen various footballers suffer damaging injuries, including two of his former teammates at Real Madrid. Eder Militao suffered an ACL injury in his left knee in their league opener against Athletic Club, whilst shortly before that, Thibaut Courtois was sidelined with a cruciate ligament injury in training.
Similar to Varane, Courtois has been equally vocal on the issue of fixture congestion. When asked to give his opinion on Belgium’s upcoming third-place match for the UEFA Nations League Finals in 2021, he didn’t hold back, stating: “This game is just a money game, we have to be honest about it.”
Having impressed in their Community Shield win against Manchester City, Jurrien Timber was given his Premier League debut vs. Nottingham Forest, but he lasted just 50 minutes in the league opener before succumbing to an ACL injury. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta lamented the loss of his new arrival, saying:
“In the past, you can say, yes there have been games, there have been tours as well. But with games, tours, the World Cup in plus this, plus that, plus internationals, it is a lot. It is too much for the players. It is incredibly demanding, when you see the next 36 months of the calendar for these players it is just better not to look at it because it is incredible what they are going to be doing.
“We have to look after them but, as a club, when do you look after them? To prioritise other competitions? Then we are the ones that have to look after them — what we really need is to be sitting down, but I think it is too late, at least for the next 36 months it is too late already. I don’t know who needs to raise a voice here but there are worries, big worries on that.”
Arsenal are looking to improve on last season’s second-place finish and challenge Manchester City, who have suffered a hammer blow with the long-term absence of Kevin de Bruyne, who succumbed to a hamstring injury in their Premier League opener against Burnley and will miss the next 3-4 months. Another Premier League side that has fallen victim to this recent spate of ACL injuries is Aston Villa, with Tyrone Mings, Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia both looking set to miss a significant chunk of time for the Villans, who will be playing European football this season for the first time in 13 years.
Other players like Chelsea’s French duo Christopher Nkunku and Wesley Fofana and English youth international Carney Chukwuemeka, Brighton’s Paraguayan forward Julio Enciso and Monaco’s Swiss striker Breel Embolo have also returned to the treatment tables, whilst David Silva elected to hang up his boots at 37 after suffering an ACL injury following a glorious career that would see him win four Premier League titles with Manchester City, Copa del Rey titles with Valencia and Real Sociedad and a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain.
A recent study from FIFPro found that nearly half the players competing at last year’s World Cup experienced extreme or increased mental fatigue during an unprecedented season of fixture congestion, with players denied preparation time for the tournament in Qatar and many returning immediately to club competition. And yet, the footballing authorities continue to push players to the brink with an increasing amount of matches across club and international competition.
In its Player Workload Monitoring (PWM) report for the 2022/23 season, FIFPro warned, “The increasing demands placed upon the game’s leading young players must also be reflected upon as concerns grow for the health and longevity of their burgeoning careers. Furthermore, the fixture congestion witnessed across the past season seems likely to further increase over the coming years as new competitions and expanded formats continue to add more matches. The industry needs a far greater collective effort to establish effective player workload safeguards and a responsible calendar solution that protects player health and supports player performance.”
From 2024/25 onwards, the UEFA Champions League will see teams play eight group stage matches, an increase from six, whilst the 2025 Club World Cup will see 32 clubs face off against each other in June and July, an increase from seven. Footballers are being forced to bend to the whims of a footballing governance that is solely focused on profits and that has zero regard for player welfare; it’s only a matter of time before they break.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images