Just a few days after the end of the men's European club season, international football is back. A new FIFPRO study has found the demands are affecting players' mental and physical health. Is it time for a change?
Four games in 10 days. It's not an abnormal workload for an elite player in the cut and thrust of a domestic season. But it's an unusual task in early June.
Hansi Flick's Germany kick off their Nations League campaign against Italy in Bologna on Saturday, then travel back to Munich to host England on Tuesday, on to Budapest to play Hungary the following Saturday and then back to Dortmund to meet the Italians again the next Tuesday. They're not alone in such a demanding schedule.
Flick will likely rotate his squad but the travel, training and mental pressure to perform will remain for the players. These are the kind of stresses players' union FIFPRO believe need to be addressed in order to protect the physical and mental health of those at the top of the game in particular.
Their latest report, released on the eve of the Champions League final, found that 54% of players say they've suffered a physical injury due to a schedule overload, while 82% of high performance coaches in the game said these exertions had a negative impact on players' mental health. These may not always be serious issues, but it's clear there's a problem.
"It is absolutely crucial that mandatory mechanisms are put in place to protect players from overload," FIFPRO General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told DW.
"The volume of games today is putting too much pressure on the mental and physical well-being of national team players, and it is affecting their performance on the pitch. Mandatory mechanisms would provide a welcome safety valve to ease the pressure."
Kevin de Bruyne: 'We have no say'
The issue has become more acute over the last couple of seasons with the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated by the Qatar World Cup being played in November and December.
Regular infringements of their codified rest periods was felt to be an issue by over half of the 1,055 professional footballers who completed FIFPRO's survey. The report points out that: high performance coaches suggest a maximum of 55 matches per season; 87% of players believe there should be fewer back-to-back matches (less than five days rest in between); and just 22% feel their voice is heard when it comes to labor issues such as these.
"For me, the Nations League is unimportant," admitted Belgium and Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne on Monday, before adding: "As players, we can talk about vacation or rest, but we have no say.
"We follow what we need to do and that's it. We have a little more than three weeks of vacation every twelve months. The outsiders don't understand how a player feels after a season.”
De Bruyne was echoing an open message contained in the FIFPRO report and signed by players including Arturo Vidal and Leonardo Bonucci. "We are athletes, not machines. Our bodies and our minds have natural limits. When we push too hard or rest too little, we break," it read.
"Proper breaks between seasons are essential, and under pressure. And as the international calendar stretches and the competitions multiply, players spend more time on the road than ever before, often crossing several time zones to play their next game. It doesn't have to be this way."
Saliou Ciss: 'Not as luxurious as it seems'
Travel is another significant strain on players, according to the report.
Some players, particularly South American and African internationals playing club football in Europe, will rack up hundreds of thousands of miles of air travel in a season, with little recuperation time in between. It is not as luxurious as it may seem, said Senegal's Saliou Ciss, who plays his club football in France with AS Nancy.
"The general public often has a distorted image of what life is really like for the great majority of national team footballers who play abroad. We're not all on an equal footing, although we all share the same desire to reconcile the interests of our clubs with those of our respective federations.
"It's important to be aware that these journeys, which to tell the truth I don't make in optimum conditions worthy of a high-level athlete, add to the fatigue that is part and parcel of an increasingly demanding profession, take their toll on our bodies and sometimes sap the morale of even the most courageous of us."
'Unsustainable and unaccountable'
A cap on the amount of games a player can play in a season and a proposal, first floated by FIFA in biannual World Cup proposals, to have fewer, but longer, international breaks may be among the strategies employed to cope with the growing demands.
But for now, it's up to the discretion of the players, their coaches and medical staff. FIFPRO's Baer-Hoffmann says this can't continue.
"A competition model which values the players as assets but denies them proper rest and recovery has locked us on to a path that is unsustainable and unaccountable. Reform is urgent, and the work starts here: by listening to the players and what their bodies are telling us."