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Raphael Varane reminds football to remember the person

February 5, 2023

World Cup-winning defender Raphael Varane has retired from international football, but the Manchester United defender's decision came with a cutting reminder of the personal cost of modern football.

Raphael Varane on the ground in the World Cup Final
Raphael Varane said he felt he had lost the person in pursuit of his playing careerImage: Javier Garcia/Shutterstock/IMAGO

Raphael Varane's retirement from international football was perhaps unsurprising. The 29-year-old defender is a World Cup winner and recently played in perhaps the most spectacular World Cup final ever. Not long afterwards, though, the Frenchman gave an interview in which he used a damning turn of phrase that reveals just how much of the person elite athletes feel they have to give up.

"The very highest level is like a washing machine, you play all the time and you never stop," Varane told Canal Plus on February 4. "We have overloaded schedules and play nonstop. Right now, I feel like I'm suffocating and that the player is gobbling up the man."

The choice of the word "gobbling" is particularly chilling. The word is defined as eating something quickly and often with a lot of noise. Applying that definition in the context of a person being swiftly removed in order for the player to operate is all the more striking.

At this point, footballers' financial comfort is usually used as justification for this treatment, and while there is no denying the money in certain leagues in modern football has reached unhealthy amounts, the absence of a truly holistic approach toward players, coaches and staff remains problematic.

Schedule overload

Last year, players' union FIFPRO delivered a report ahead of the World Cup in Qatar showing the players' workload going into the tournament. The French squad, which included Varane, had played the most minutes in international club competitions. At the time of announcing his retirement, Varane had played 2,136 minutes this season, including 76 minutes in the Premier League for Manchester United nine days after playing 112 minutes in the World Cup final.

In 2021, Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was critical of UEFA, saying players were being treated like "robots." Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gündogan tweeted about the new Champions League reforms, saying: "More and more and more games, is no one thinking about us players?"

The mental health of players has long been a major concern. Last year, a report from global players' union FIFPRO showed the impact an overloaded schedule was having, with FIFPRO General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann telling DW categorically that: "The volume of games today is putting too much pressure on the mental and physical well-being of national team players."

Holistic approach needed

With this in mind, it is telling that football continues to be slow in adapting integrated holistic approaches.

Australian coaching mentor Cody Royle, who has worked with the major sports leagues across the world, including the NBA and NHL and is currently working with the Premier League to mentor coaches, is not surprised by Varane's comments.

Coaches have told Royle this was inevitable and was a reminder that coaches and staff also suffer in this environment. For Royle, Varane's loss of the person in pursuit of a better player is the "dehumanization of human endeavor."

"In my world we talk about 'at what cost?'" Royle told DW. "So what Varane is telling us is that the cost is too high. He's made an assessment and the money, prestige and ability to represent his country is not worth more than his humanity, his family and his sense of being a human being."

Royle believes Varane's comments are also a sign that things are changing, albeit slowly.

"Players are self-actualizing," Royle said. "We've taught them about them things like mindfulness and identity and happiness and they do a lot of thinking and education about that so we shouldn't really be surprised when they have these realizations as they mature... They are trying to rehumanize themselves in an industry that has been dehumanized."

Beacon organization

Other sports are leading the way when it comes to looking after the person alongside the player. The National Rugby League in Australia, for example, has implemented a holistic approach across the league that includes the presence of two well-being managers at each of the 17 teams — one focused on career planning and the other on general physical and mental health. 

While far from perfect, the league has seen major improvements in well-being as well as performance on the field.

"Players and coaching are breaking and stepping away," Royle said. 

"I think we need a beacon club or organization that shows there is a different way... We need them to be held up and say 'we did things differently and saw it as a competitive advantage, we looked at well-being and performance, we helped people, we rehumanized our environment so that people could thrive rather than sink and the resulting performance was great.'"

Varane is certainly not the only player to voice his concern in this area, but his comments are the latest reminder that the cost of losing the person in exchange for a better player appears a price football is happy to pay. The evidence in other sports and from an increasing number of people working in the holistic space shows that another way is not only possible, but also necessary.

As Royle said: "The question for coaches and football directors, why not your club?"

Edited by: Mark Hallam