Playing too many games is one of the main issues surrounding the current landscape of soccer. With international breaks and competitions overlapping with players’ club seasons, there are small windows of true rest.
For instance, players in the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga often cannot take breaks that some of the more privileged receive. In some cases, club sides and international teams need a player to help them accomplish their goals.
Take someone like Pedri. Currently, a hamstring injury sidelines the 18-year-old midfielder. Perhaps, this injury came about because of that massive allotment of minutes the Spaniard played in his debut season. In fact, the 17-year-old arrived from UD Las Palmas prior to the 2020/21 season. Then, he went and played the most games in all competitions across Europeans.
In his first season for Barcelona, the midfielder appeared in 52 games for the club. That’s more than fellow midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets as well as Jordi Alba and the recently departed Lionel Messi. Although, Pedri played less minutes than all aforementioned players outside of Sergio Busquets in La Liga action. Still, the foundations for playing too many games persist.
Then, internationally, Pedri did not get a chance for a breather. As the player got better over the season, Spain saw his usage rise as well. In 2021, Pedri played in three World Cup qualifiers, six Olympic contests as Spain lost in the gold medal game, six Euro 2020 games with Spain knocked out in the semifinals and one international friendly.
After his exploits in the first nine months of 2021, Pedri picked up an injury after just four appearances for the Blaugrana. This is just one instance of an athlete playing too many games.
Surely, more will come.
Number of games on the rise
On the surface, everyone would love more soccer. Contests consistently pitting the world’s best are great, right?
Well, if the backlash to the European Super League served as any indication, not all fans crave more games. Of course, the main issue was a lack of competitive balance with a league like that. Yet, it did contribute to discussions regarding a biennial World Cup.
FIFA, in a bid to bring in more money and ‘grow the game’, proposed playing the World Cup every two years. At the same time, FIFA recently upped the number of teams in the competition to 48 ahead of the 2026 World Cup.
The issue with the biennial World Cup could warrant their own discussion. But, regarding an increased number of games, the strain would be intense on players. Already, most players on major European teams play in continental competitions like the European Championship or Copa America in between World Cup years.
READ MORE: FIFA wants biennial World Cup consensus by December 20.
Breaking it down, each national competition like that has qualification stages.
First off, you cannot blame players for not wanting to give their all for their country to reach the World Cup. Qualification for the World Cup varies based on continent and results. Teams play at least 10 games in UEFA qualifying, 18 in CONMEBOL, 16 in CONCACAF, 18 in AFC and eight in Africa.
The reason for ‘at least’ in those numbers is that teams on the bubble enter playoff stages where the squads play at least two more games each.
It’s a grueling road, and that number may decrease when the number of teams in the World Cup increases. Regardless, there is uncertainty in how this number changes with heightened frequency of the World Cup. As of now, World Cup qualifying begins two years outside of the upcoming World Cup. Qualification would be more rapid if it is to follow a similar format to one employed by the different federations currently.
Practically, there is uncertainty. And, in a game where some players play in over five different competitions, uncertainty is an unnecessary risk.
Even now, the USMNT saw a handful of players pick up injuries on international duty. Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna picked up injuries in the September international break, sidelining them for over two months.
Similar to the World Cup, playing too many games persists already in the likes of the Euros, Copa America, Gold Cup, Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup.
To start, the qualification processes for most of these tournaments resembles that of a World Cup. Of course, the exception is the Copa America, where the 10 CONMEBOL teams automatically qualify for the competition. Then, a World-Cup-length tournament persists for roughly one month across these different federations.
Certain competitions, particularly the African Cup of Nations or AFC Asian Cup, happen during the season. In these cases, players jump from their domestic leagues across the world to a monthlong tournament. After that, their club schedules do not skip a beat.
More often than not, clubs expect their major players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané or Wilfred Ndidi to jump straight back in. Remember, while European and American international tournaments transpire outside of traditional club schedules, leagues do not take breaks for the Africa Cup of Nations or the AFC Asian Cup.
Still, let’s not cast aside the other confederations. Yes, the Euros, Copa America and Gold Cup occur outside of the traditional club season. Yet, while these players could be recuperating and allowing their bodies to catch up with their schedule, more intense competition takes precedence.
The aforementioned competitions do not include the Nations League. This competition only started in UEFA following the 2018 World Cup. The purpose of the competition is to replace friendlies with an actual competition. As an added bonus, smaller nations could use UEFA and CONCACAF’s new ‘leagues’ to qualify for other tournaments.
Regardless of opinions on the intensity of the drawn out tournament, it surely means something to the players and coaches. For example, the first CONCACAF Nations League Final featured Pulisic, Reyna, Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest, all of whom play for prominent European sides that consistently make runs in domestic leagues and cups and continental competition.
READ MORE: Injured Pulisic, Reyna to miss US World Cup Qualifiers.
The aforementioned Pedri likely would have started in the UEFA Nations League Final. However, his lingering injury kept him out of the squad.
Let’s not forget, all the aforementioned competitions only happen at the international level. Thirty-six-plus game seasons for clubs, at least one domestic cup and, often for the world’s best players, the Champions League and Europa league dotted on weekdays.
Clearly, some players play too many games. Dependency on those who are more talented causes them to be worn out. Indeed, there are some athletes who are simply monsters that seem to not need rest. For example, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount served critical components to their teams that each made deep runs in European competition. They finished last season second and third in terms of appearances overall.
Remedies for playing too many games
There are certain characters that are in favor of an increased workload for players across world soccer. Notably, many of these names come from higher-ups. The main culprit is perhaps the push by FIFA for the biennial World Cup.
For example, Gianni Infantino, the current FIFA President, received major backlash from independent nations. Portugal, Italy and Switzerland are just a few examples of this. Also, those nations have players that represent club teams that play practically from August until May. This leaves just June and July, which, even then, often mean time spent with the international teams.
One major critic of the biennial World Cup is UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin. Despite FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s promises of providing unity in the game, Ceferin suggested UEFA could boycott FIFA’s biggest tournament if the organization moves away from its quadrennial format.
Ceferin’s reasoning? He says the increased workload for teams would “kill football.” More eloquently, the UEFA President argues it would put such a strain on clubs and players alike that it would simply not be feasible.
“To play every summer a one-month tournament, for the players it’s a killer. If it’s every two years it clashes with the Women’s World Cup, with the Olympic football tournament,” Ceferin told The Times.
“The value is precisely because it is every four years, you wait for it. It’s like the Olympic Games, it’s a huge event. I don’t see our federations supporting that.”
Similarly, we already see some people call for fewer games as it is. No more 60+ games for Bruno Fernandes, Pedri or any other overly used player like that.
Redrafting the Soccer Calendar
In 2018, then-European Club Association Chairman Andrea Agnelli called for “mandatory rest periods” and a redesign of some competitions. While some, including FIFA President Gianni Infantino, want expanded competitions and thus more games, Agnelli mentioned the overworking of players.
“They’re playing week in, week out, two or three games a week, be it at club level or a national team level,” Agnelli said.
“So when we think about the calendar going forward we must also take into consideration weeks when players can actually rest and/or train. So reducing the overall number of games.”
Of course, Agnelli hampered any credibility on the topic with his devotion towards the failed European Super League. He resigned from his positions on the European Club Association and with Juventus. Regardless, he makes a good point in terms of mandatory resting periods.
In most leagues, the winter break is a good way to get bodies back up to par. Even then, extensive training limits any true recuperation. Then, in England, the lack of a winter break reinforces the idea of overextending players.
We’re all fans of great games, underdogs and dramatic storylines. They seem inherent with the beautiful game. Theoretically, more games opens up more opportunities to that.
Derek Rae, one of the world’s most notable commentators, said expanding the number of teams in the World Cup did not create any kind of problem when it jumped from 16 to 24 and 24 to 32. Therefore, we’ll have to see how that impacts the understanding of the competition. It seems to work well with the UEFA European Championships. After all, Iceland’s run in 2016 captured the emotions of soccer fans across the world.
Rather, the issue comes with frequency. As merely a writer, I am unsure if removing some competitions or reducing the number of teams or intensity is the solution.
One thing is for certain. We all love when teams like France or Germany play Argentina or Brazil. However, if the competitions stay at the same frequency with the same number of games, there is reason to believe that some countries or clubs will throw out secondary sides to allow major players some form of rest.
In the case of a biennial World Cup, if certain UEFA nations do not boycott every two years, who is stopping these coaches from fielding a ‘senior’ side one tournament, then a younger, more experimental side, in the next rendition two years later?
Predicting the future
There is no saying what will happen in terms of the number of games these athletes play each season. There is reason to see them playing more games via expanded international tournaments. Although, certain constituents fight for fewer games than what we currently see.
The higher-ups obviously control the scheduling, and more games tends to mean more money. Gianni Infantino is adamant on pushing up the number of games and creating more opportunities for even smaller nations.
However, the soccer world is a powerful body. The immediate shutdown of the European Super League came as a result of fan backlash against their own clubs. Gary Neville’s testimonies on Sky Sports seemed to lead the English-language hatred of the proposal.
So, we will have to see the impacts of the public and the players against the executives.
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