The focus on footballer’s health and safety has made significant strides with the use of better monitoring and technology along with constantly improving techniques in the medical and fitness worlds.
However, there’s increasing concern that player’s are overtaxing their bodies with – according to a new FIFPRO report – upwards of 80% of footballers competing in 2-matches per week; a number that has steadily increased over the past 3 years.
Coinciding with that increase in two match weeks, the last 19 months have thrown a wrench into even the most detailed of plans, beginning with the pandemic shut down that led to a condensed restart period and summer into an unprecedentedly compact 2020 -21 season, followed by two major international tournaments and another condensed off-season. Then factor in AFCON for African footballers this January and a winter World Cup in 2022, that’s a major ask and pressure on many of these high level players.
To quantify and potentially mitigate these risks, FIFPro — with the help of KPMG football benchmark — analysed data from approximately 40,000 match appearances of 265 male professional footballers from 44 different leagues between the months of June 2018 and August 2021.
Amongst the 265 players, those with the highest workload – typically players near the peak of their career and powers who were involved with their respective national teams – played 67% of their minutes on back to back matches. Specifically, the criteria for “back to back” matches was playing at least 45 minutes in two consecutive appearances with less than five days of recovery between the two matches. That number jumped significantly last season, up nearly 61% from the two seasons prior (2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively).
Additionally, compounding this sheer minutes and workload burden, reduced breaks (both off-season and in-season) along with extensive travel – particularly for international trips with some players jetting over 200,000 kilometers (the South America FIFA World Cup qualifiers and FIFA Club World cup in particular required the most distance traveled) – added to the level of fatigue and disruptors that can impact a player’s health, performance, and overall longevity.
With that in mind, what recommendations are FIFPro making?
As it pertains to off-season and in-season breaks, FIFPro is recommending that every player have a minimum of 28 days (four weeks) of off-season time and a minimum of 14 days (two weeks) of in-season time.
For reference, nearly 45% of current off-season breaks lasted less than that recommended 28 days and 30% of in-season breaks less than the recommended 14 days.
For reducing player workload and volume, FIFPro is recommending that players do not play two matches with over 45 minutes of game time within five days of each other (what FIFPro refers to as two games within one match week).
How practical are these recommendations?
Recommendations from objective third parties are great – especially when backed up by this much data – but there’s countless examples of these recommendations falling on deaf ears because professional football is an extremely competitive landscape with numerous competing interests that lead to convoluted decision-making processes which many times don’t put the player’s health at the forefront — a topic and process I’ve written about in detail for Squawka.
In this specific case of these FIFPro recommendations, the most practical and achievable – at least once seasons and international tournaments finally normalize – is the 28 days of off-season rest.
As for 14 days of in-season breaks, we see it already in some leagues such as the Bundesliga with its winter break but I don’t see many leagues giving that long of a break within the season – there’s simply too much financial pressure to play games and further, the added time constraints of international tournaments.
Take note of @IlkayGuendogan’s words here! FIFPRO raised this issue in 2019 already in its #atthelimit report and we’ve pushed for its recommendations ever since, including sufficient rest & recovery time, player workload monitoring & more:
— FIFPRO (@FIFPRO) April 23, 2021
The conundrum also becomes if you add a longer in-season break, does it potentially cut into the off-season break and under that 28 day mark? Is one option better than the other? That could be a good, practical topic for FIFPro to look into next.
Finally we come to the recommendation of reducing 2 game week matches for players. Good luck on that one, especially once European competitions begin and you have players who are critical to earn points in their domestic league and help teams advance.
That being said, can managers potentially plan out those games better? Absolutely but with mid-week matches, this is going to be a very tough sell for managers and players alike.
A potential oversight from FIFPro
Looking beyond just the practicality (or impracticality) of some of these recommendations, there’s one key factor that FIFPro may be overlooking – the science behind building high level, elite fitness via playing in games.
There are players whose training and fitness levels are high enough that they actually rely on games to become fitness boosters because normal training isn’t enough to meet their current fitness levels. “Iron man” players like Granit Xhaka and Declan Rice come to mind from the English Premier League and for an even younger example Barcelona’s Pedri who broke the record for most games played in a calendar year after completing Spain’s Olympic run to the final.
Interestingly enough in the case of Pedri, he only picked up an injury after being given two weeks off following the Olympics. Could it be that the dent in his fitness levels from that rest and then returning to games was the root cause?
It’s certainly possible.
Further, with teams constantly monitoring their players’ health via more and more technical means – like blood oxygen levels and lactate, sleep patterns, constant manual assessment – are FifPro’s very general recommendations drilled down enough to resonate with any of the clubs?
I strongly believe that most sports science, training, and medical staff are going to rely on their specialised and player-specific data to inform decisions on player rest and clearance rather than a general recommendation.
That’s not to say FifPro’s recommendations and data aren’t important. They still highlight a growing area of concern when it comes to player health and fatigue, increasingly so after the haphazard scheduling following the pandemic. A schedule that doesn’t look to get any lighter in coming years.
Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT, (@3cbperformance) is a physiotherapist, movement expert, fitness trainer, sports scientist and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA and online based wellness and athletic performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more).