The global football players’ union, FIFPRO, has warned of the “urgent” need to protect players’ welfare in a new schedule for the international game.
The threat of player burnout around the Winter World Cup in Qatar has highlighted issues to consider as a new competition calendar is negotiated to replace the current deal which ends in the summer of 2024 .
FIFPRO’s pre-tournament player workload report highlighted the number of matches played by top players, many of whom came in quick succession without a rest period, while the World Cup itself began just seven days after a club match for some Premier League players and ended eight days before Boxing Day fixtures.
FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told the PA news agency: “That’s probably the number one topic players talk to our unions about – that we need to find a better balance in schedules and give them more time to recover.
“We have argued for many years that we need a minimum off-season break, a minimum mid-season break, regulations that manage back-to-back games. We need a different mentality towards player welfare.
“We need to look at physical and mental well-being not just from a performance perspective, but from a human perspective, so they can have long careers, healthy careers, so they can play their best when it matters most.
“So far, all conversations have been based on improving or scaling up competitions, rather than focusing on ‘What does a balanced schedule look like?’ For national and international competitions, but also for the health and well-being of the players, this has always taken precedence over commercial interest.
“For this next schedule, we urgently need agreements to provide those minimum protections for players, which let a club know you have your player at full capacity and allow the player to play national team matches. which are some of the highlights of their careers.”
When Liverpool were kicked off on Saturday lunchtime last season after a midweek Champions League semi-final, manager Jurgen Klopp said: “The schedule and the way people use fame in this moment – Liverpool are hot and everyone wants to see them – they don’t care. It’s just not OK.
Arsenal’s Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema are among seven players in the Women’s Super League to suffer anterior cruciate ligament injuries this season and coach Jonas Eidevall warned on Tuesday of the need to be “very smart in the way we develop the women’s game”.
Sarina Wiegman, Mead’s coach with England, added: “Usually for the best players the schedule is too busy.”
Baer-Hoffmann continued: “If we do not reach a negotiated solution between the organizers of the competition, this problem will only continue.
“Top talent will not be available when clubs and countries really need it, and players will almost be pushed into a situation where they have to choose where they can participate.
“It’s striking that we arrive at this kind of scenario before we can arrive at a balanced solution. It shows what kind of problem we have in the governance of football these days.
Those concerns echo the one-day international retirement of England cricket captain Ben Stokes last year, with a statement that “three formats just aren’t viable for me now”.
FIFPRO’s Alexander Bielefeld told PA: “I think the situation in football is actually worse than in other sports.
“We did research where we compared safeguards and regulations in American sports and in soccer – and in soccer there is basically, internationally, the complete absence of safeguards.
“It’s really this competition calendar that overlaps between national leagues and confederations and FIFA – there are too many competing interests.”
FIFA has been contacted for comment.
Last year, the world governing body drew widespread criticism with a proposal to stage the World Cup every two years instead of every four, but Baer-Hoffmann noted: “In this same proposal, it there was a mandatory month-long summer break.
“When we talk to the leagues, they have a growing interest in putting safeguards in place. The conversation has therefore already changed, the arguments are flowing.
“The problem is that you now have a fairly complex negotiation where you have several competition organizers with various legitimate interests and then the players in the middle of it.
“I think the next three to six months will determine how it goes, but we have to bear in mind that unless there is a common understanding there will be quite a bit of conflict over this. “