FOX Soccer Exclusive
Fatigued players need time to recover
Fans, if you’re thinking that the World Cup just ended, and it seems as if this new season is kicking off rather soon, you’re not alone.
Just four weeks after the World Cup final, Manchester United ran out Chelsea 3-1 in the Community Shield on Sunday in England’s traditional curtain raiser. France’s Ligue One kicked off with a full schedule on Saturday and Germany staged its opener, the SuperCup, this weekend as well.
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In between, American fans have seen a summer of high-profile friendlies, including tours with Manchester United and Real Madrid and appearances from teams as far afield as Glasgow Celtic, Panathinaikos, AC Milan and Sporting Lisbon, to say nothing of the fistful of Mexican teams playing games in SuperLiga and other exhibitions.
The truth is there has been no break. Soccer has rolled right along.
While this is a feast for the fans, all this soccer is having two measurable effects on the game as a whole.
The first is that since people are showing up to see these games -- witness that Detroit pulled 30,000 for a game with a Greek side no one would consider top-tier -- teams are booking more of them. America has been particularly fecund when it comes to high-priced soccer games, and Asia isn’t far behind. What club wouldn’t take a quick $4m?
The second is that with all these games -- the World Cup, Champions League, League Cups, FA Cups, league games, exhibitions and testimonials -- the players are suffering.
This isn’t a new issue. For the past ten years, FIFA and UEFA have been making concerned-sounding noises about “protecting” their players, while doing little or nothing about it. That hypocrisy reached new heights during the Cup when, after what was one of the dirtiest finals ever staged, the Dutch were fined a paltry $14,480. That of course pales in comparison to what the Dutch got for just showing up -- a cool $24 million.
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In fact, the entire World Cup hit a new low as teams showed up with tired, injured players, resulting in slow games, poor play and restive performances. Some of the aggression we saw at this Cup was due to simple exhaustion and frustration, but neither the clubs nor FIFA seem to be willing to step back from the trough.
That’s because there is so much money to be had. A European team can make $47 million in prize money alone for winning the Champions League and sports economists estimate that the title is actually worth about $120 million all told after licensing and marketing. Qualifying for the Champions League alone -- without winning a single game -- is worth $5 million.
But these riches come at a cost -- the players’ health. Ultimately, this affects the clubs. Many foreign fans -- and it is the foreign markets that are lifting many of these clubs today -- follow a team because they identify with a player. So consider that in the wake of the Cup, it’s been revealed that two big-name players shouldn’t have taken the field at all.
Brazil’s Kaka will miss at least four months of the season after what his doctor termed as “emergency” knee surgery, exacerbated by a grueling club season with Real Madrid and four tough World Cup matches (Kaka missed one of Brazil’s five games due to suspension).
Arjen Robben, who was re-injured in a World Cup warmup after struggling through a season with Bayern Munich, was rested for the first two games by Holland but played in the remaining five. This week he was diagnosed with a thigh muscle tear, an injury that has his club incensed.
Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rumminegge told Munich daily Abendzeitung that Robben shouldn’t have even traveled to South Africa in the first place, and is demanding compensation (this might sound a bit off considering that the club showed no such restraint itself with Robben, throwing him into Champions League games with abandon).
Even if the players come back from these competitions able to play, they return from what has become year-round soccer shattered. Sir Alex Ferguson gave disgraced French captain Patrice Evra time off from United after noting that he had “averaged” 55 games a year over the past five years (Ferguson also twisted the knife, slamming the Cup as dreadful).
England manager, Fabio Capello, admitted his players were exhausted at the Cup. Why? Too many games.
That exhaustion was visible in the Community Shield this weekend. The men who skipped the World Cup looked bright and fit. The men who played in it looked as if they were wearing weights strapped to their ankles.
And don’t discount the psychological impact of all those games -- and so much disappointment.
It’s going to take a long time for men like John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery to shake the last Cup off. Even Thierry Henry, only a bit player at this past Cup, is showing the strain. Sunday, he had to be removed from the Red Bulls-Fire match at the half with a groin injury.
So it’s no wonder that few, if any world clubs, care at all about the performance of the national team. In fact, they see them as parasites, and with some reason. Rarely do national teams compensate clubs for injuries they clearly have caused. That said, many clubs also make the calculation that it’s simply cheaper to replace a damaged player, a conclusion that is deeply cynical but arguably cost-effective.
It should be noted that here in the USA, the situation is a bit different -- the American nats are seen as engines of growth. Yet, even here, where MLS was founded on the mandate of producing “American players,” the reality has proven to be quite different. American players don’t sell tickets -- high-profile signings like Henry do.
Sadly, the simple way to change this situation -- strictly limiting the number of games a player can play in a single calendar year -- is a non-starter. The clubs pay the freight, after all, and the national teams provide the income for the Federations, which in turn provide the grassroots support to unearth the talent in the first place.
But something has to change. The World Cup, still the biggest tournament in the world, is suffering from burnout. Clubs are being hit with huge costs for inactive players. And the game that fans love is becoming choppier and sloppier.
It’s time to give the players a break -- the only question remains how.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.