MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Less is more. That is the message coming from within soccer at a time when demand for the sport has never been higher.
At least, that's the message from those on the front line, who claim they are putting their bodies and minds at risk over the increased demands being placed upon them.
Congested schedules, along with new and/or reformed competitions have raised concerns about the number of games the world's top players are being asked to play.
Last season Manchester United and Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes made 70 appearances for club and country, including a run of 20 consecutive games.
Manchester City and Spain midfielder Rodri played in 10 different competitions.
Such statistics have led to fears over the physical and mental health of players, the potential for burnout and the premature curtailing of careers.
On Thursday, Vincent Kompany, the former Manchester City captain and now manager of Premier League Burnley, offered a potential solution to the issue.
“I think that for the players at the very, very top, who are playing in national teams and all of these other competitions... it should just be capped appearances for a player to play within a season,” he said. “You’re not going to keep a player away from finals, you’re never going to do that, or important games. But I think if you decide that physiologically that 65 or 70 games is beyond healthy then that should be the cap and after that you start juggling around like you do when you have an injured player.”
Disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic and a mid-season World Cup last year have contributed to hectic scheduling to enable clubs to meet fixture commitments.
Poland defender Kamil Glik was back into action for Italian team Benevento just four days after his country was eliminated from last year's World Cup, which was staged in November and December. The tournament was moved from its traditional time of June-July because temperatures would be too high during those months in the host nation of Qatar.
Raphael Varane, who was injured on the eve of the tournament but recovered to help France advance to the final, waited eight days after that match to play again for his club Manchester United.
To add to the pressure on players, world governing body FIFA and the Premier League have imposed measures that have led to extended amounts of added time at the end of matches.
Designed to give a more accurate reflection of stoppages in play, it has led to games lasting 100 minutes and beyond.
Varane posted his own concerns on X, formerly known as Twitter, saying, “there are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for players physical and mental well-being."
“As a player I feel very privileged to do the job I love every day but I feel these changes are damaging our game," he added. “We want to be at our maximum level, the best we can be and put on amazing performances for fans to celebrate every week.”
Varane retired from international soccer after the World Cup, at the age of 29.
It is not likely to get any easier for overworked players.
European soccer's governing body UEFA has announced changes to the Champions League from next season that will see two additional games as a result of the group stages of the competition being switched to a league format.
A new 32-team Club World Cup will kick off in 2025, replacing the current format, which involves seven teams and a maximum two games for representatives from Europe and South America.
The World Cup and European Championship have also expanded in recent years to allow more nations to qualify, while the Nations League is growing as well.
A report this year by FIFPRO, the world players' union, analyzed the impact of what it described as “extreme calendar congestion" last season.
It said 43% of World Cup players surveyed had experienced “extreme or increased mental fatigue.”
FIFPRO said the congestion "posed a pressing danger to the physical and mental health of players.”
“All of this continues without the implementation of fundamental workload safeguards, placing the future of the game’s key contributors, the players, at risk,” it said. "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.”
FIFPRO also raised concerns about pressures on young players and the “longevity of their burgeoning careers.”
It has previously been suggested that a reduction in the size of the Premier League from 20 to 18 or 16 teams would help reduce demands on players. That is unlikely to be accepted by clubs like Kompany's Burnley, which have an increased likelihood of being cut from the top flight as a result.
Such arguments are also undermined when the top clubs are willing to accept an increased number of games in the lucrative Champions League.
Kompany believes the intensity of the game has increased even in the short time since he retired in 2020, with many coaches deploying high-pressing tactics.
However, teams do now have larger squads than in the past and are permitted to make five substitutions, which is an increase on the previous number of three.
That is still less than City manager Pep Guardiola called for in 2016 when suggesting there should be up to six substitutions per match.
Guardiola has repeatedly claimed congested schedules will “kill” players.
Kompany is one of his former players who had to overcome a number of injuries during his career.
He said limits would put pressure on coaches and national teams to come up with a “common sense kind of calendar.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer