World Cup warnings ignored so players’ welfare will suffer during unprecedented fixture pile-up

·2-min read
World Cup warnings ignored so players’ welfare will suffer during unprecedented fixture pile-up

The pace of the football calendar changes sharply from this week and, in all seriousness, spare a thought for the players.

From the weekend just gone until mid-November, when the Premier League breaks for the World Cup, last season’s top seven all play 20 times: a match every 3.85 days. The only respite comes in the form of a September international break, with two fixtures for most major nations, including England.

After the weekend of November 12-13, there is a seven-day gap before the World Cup starts, and the domestic season resumes just two days after the December 18 final, with the Premier League returning on Boxing Day.

The placid start to this season will come to feel wildly out of keeping with the rest of this dizzying campaign, raising the question of why there was not a midweek game in match-week two to give players a break down the line.

If pandemic football was chaotic and borderline irresponsible, this campaign takes relentless scheduling to new levels. Liverpool, for example, face home and away Champions League matches against Napoli, Ajax and Rangers, League games against Newcastle, Everton, Wolves, Chelsea, Brighton, Arsenal, Manchester City, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Tottenham and Southampton, and a League Cup tie against Derby in the next 10-and-a-half weeks. The schedule is similar for Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, City, Manchester United and West Ham.

There was a compelling case that there were too many fixtures in the calendar even before FIFA crowbarred a World Cup into the middle of a domestic season and, as it is, international players at leading clubs faced a gruelling pile-up of matches. The risk of burnout and injuries is high, even with the addition of five substitutes.

The schedule will push even the biggest squads to the limit, and the quality of matches is sure to suffer, not least because players will be increasingly conscious of the approaching World Cup, the potential pinnacle of many careers.

All this pressure on players is, of course, to accommodate a tournament in Qatar which should have taken place somewhere else and over the summer.

England manager Gareth Southgate was among those to suggest a radical rethink of the schedule after the initial pause to the domestic game in March 2020 to realign the calendar to accommodate the need for a winter World Cup, but such pleas fell on deaf ears at FIFA.

Player welfare was one of the major themes of the Covid crisis, both after the restart in summer 2020 and last season, when squads were being severely hit by outbreaks.

Steven Gerrard, Pep Guardiola, Jordan Henderson and others all spoke compellingly about the need for more consideration for players, yet the approaching schedule suggests FIFA, the Premier League and other decision-makers have taken little notice and few lessons have been learned.