FIFPro, the worldwide organisation that represents professional footballers, has warned that the congested 2022-23 season calendar posed a “pressing danger” to players’ mental and physical health.
In its Player Workload Monitoring (PWM) report for the season, FIFPro particularly focussed on the impact of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
It also looked at the individual cases of high-profile players such as Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior.
“The extreme levels of calendar congestion evident over the course of the season posed a pressing danger to the physical and mental health of players,” FIFPro said. “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.
“All of this continues without the implementation of fundamental workload safeguards, placing the future of the game’s key contributors, the players, at risk. 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.”
This is far from the first time FIFPro has been outspoken on the match calendar. It called for reform in 2021, warned about the impact of the Qatar World Cup last November and earlier this year warned that players playing more than 55 games risked more injuries, increased stress and poor performances in the long run.
The organisation reported that 43 per cent of World Cup players they surveyed experienced extreme or increased mental fatigue after the tournament, which was unusually played in the middle of the domestic European football calendar due to high temperatures in Qatar during the summer months.
The PWM report also states 86 per cent of players FIFPro surveyed wanted at least 14 days of preparation between the World Cup and their club duties — but there were only an average of seven days ahead of last year’s competition compared to 31 for previous tournaments.
Meanwhile, 61 per cent of players wanted 14 to 28 days of recovery after the World Cup — last year’s tournament had an average of eight days compared to 37 at previous editions.
Almost 50 per cent of players reported feeling extreme or increased physical fatigue after the World Cup (in January 2023) compared to how they would usually feel, and 53 per cent reported injury or felt more likely to suffer injury due to the congested fixture calendar.
“The unprecedentedly short preparation period witnessed before the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the short recovery periods after it put many players in a difficult situation, increasing the physical and mental toll on them,” the report added.
Player case studies
The PWM report looked in particular at Fernandes and Bellingham over the past few seasons.
Fernandes played 48 matches for United during the 2022-23 season and 74 per cent of those were “back to back” — meaning there were fewer than the recommended five days rest in-between.
The 28-year-old midfielder, who also played for Portugal at the World Cup, had only 4.3 days of rest between matches over the course of the season.
The report also notes that Fernandes played 20 consecutive matches from mid-January to the end of March. The average number of days between matches during the streak dropped to 3.5 days.
FIFPro also urges caution with Bellingham’s “extreme teenage workload”.
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The Dortmund and England midfielder turns 20 later this month and has already clocked up 14,445 minutes.
That is a much higher figure compared to other high-profile Englishmen. Steven Gerrard played 2,853 minutes before he was 20, Marcus Rashford played 5,936 and Wayne Rooney played 10,989.
Jude Bellingham has played almost 10,000 more minutes than Marcus Rashford at the same age (Photo: Getty Images)
FIFPro also compared Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr with fellow Brazilian Ronaldinho, finding that the 22-year-old had played 2000 minutes by the time he was 18, the age at which the former AC Milan and Barcelona attacker made his debut.
Vinicius Jr has played 18,876 senior minutes in his career so far, three times that played by Ronaldinho (7,607) at the same age.
“As the sport continues to evolve,” FIFPro said, “it is essential for players, clubs, governing bodies, and the rest of the stakeholders to work collaboratively to ensure that players receive the support they need to thrive amidst the high demands of modern football.”
FIFPro warns that, due to new club competition formats in the coming years, “leading players” face seasons containing 90 or more matches, when including international tournaments.
The UEFA Champions League is set to change its format to a ‘Swiss Model’ from the 2024-25 season onwards, leading to teams playing an increased eight group-stage games.
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The new Club World Cup from 2025 will also move to June/July and contain 32 clubs with far more fixtures than the existing seven-team tournament.
On these changes, FIFPRo said: “The reforms of the two major tournaments will ultimately increase the number of games played by top players who could conceivably feature in both.
“This poses a threat to the well-being of players who are already pushed to their limit with the current international match calendar.”
(Photos: Getty Images)