A culture of overwork in elite men’s football is threatening players’ health, a new study has found days before Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mané each play their 70th game of the season in the Champions League final.
The international players’ union Fifpro has released the results of a workload survey of more than 1,000 professional players and high-performance coaches. Even more tellingly, it also looked at the activity of 265 players – calculating minutes played, kilometers traveled and rest days between games.
The figures showed that 72 of the 265 had played 55 games or more in the 2020-21 season, which would make exceeding a level agreed by coaches a risk for the players. They also competed regularly without a recommended five-day break between games, with 147 instances of players attending 10 or more games in a row.
These more general figures are corroborated by examples from club football’s flagship match on Saturday in Paris. In preseason, Salah and Mane will have played 15 more games this year than the 55 mark. More than 60% of these games were played during periods of insufficient recovery. The pair, who have met in the Africa Cup of Nations final and a World Cup play-off this year, have traveled nearly 200,000km between them to play for their club and national team.
Similar problems affect Real Madrid players. Despite a late start to the season, Karim Benzema will have played 53 games by the end of the season. Éder Militão and Vinícius Júnior have each traveled 128,000 km, mainly to play for Brazil.
In the survey responses, player concerns mirrored the messages contained in the data: 55% said they had sustained at least one injury due to a busy schedule, and 20% said they had suffered multiple injuries. Only 32% said they received the four-week break recommended at the end of the 202-21 season, and 76% agreed that extra protection is needed to guarantee break times.
Overload concerns are regularly raised by top coaches, led by Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp. However, discussions between the governing bodies, such as the one that led to the agreement on reforming the Champions League this spring, have tended to add more dates to the calendar.
“The strain on players’ health reveals the governance crisis in our sport,” said Fifpro Secretary General Jonas-Baer Hoffmann. “A competitive model that values players as assets but denies them adequate rest and recreation has set us down a path that is unsustainable and intractable. Reform is urgent and the work starts here: by listening to the players and what their bodies are telling us.”