FOX Soccer Exclusive
Crazy club schedule causing World Cup injury explosion
It’s not “casualty,” but it’s close.
One star after another has fallen to injury in a run-up that has fans despondent and coaches apoplectic. Nearly every top team is battling injuries that range in severity from troubling to mild, but this World Cup run-up is truly striking in the number of bold-faced names flat out struck from the world’s biggest sporting event.
This weekend, four big names were hit with the injury bug: Holland’s Arjen Robben, Cote D’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba, Honduras’ Wilson Palacios and England’s Rio Ferdinand. They join an ever-lengthening list of pre-tournament question marks that threaten to directly impact the quality on the pitch in South Africa.
Missing from the finals will be Michael Essien (Ghana), David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand (England), Michael Ballack and Rene Adler (Germany) and the USA’s Charlie Davies. Doubtful are Italy’s Mauro Camorensi (knee) and Andrea Pirlo (calf); Robben, Drogba (broken arm), and Ghana’s Sulley Muntari (ankle). And that doesn’t even bring in the countless folks desperately trying to shake off injury, including American Jozy Altidore (ankle).
What’s going on here? And how important are these injuries to their teams?
Simply put, the best players in the world are being played to death. It should not shock anyone that domestic double winners Chelsea have five big names on the various national trainer’s table: Some played fifty games or more with the club over the past season, then tacked on another ten or so games with their national team. That’s typical for a top-name player these days, and averages out to over a game a week, without pause. It’s too much.
Consider also that the pressure to compete at the highest level in every game is unyielding: Clubs justifiably demand the best in every game, and with the enormous sums of money at stake, it’s hard to fault a manager for gambling with his talent. Fans demand the best from their national sides — naively assuming that the players’ pride is enough to overcome their bruising professions — and are merciless when their teams limp around the field.
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But many players are simply out of gas at this point, and for proof look no further than the energy conserving tactics of Italy in their most recent warm-ups. Italy, which lost 2-1 to Mexico and drew 1-1 with the Swiss might be inviting their fans’ ire, but Marcello Lippi is trying to play smart, realizing that these games are meaningless.
And yet, even conservative Italy is struggling with fitness; against Switzerland, Lippi fielded a second-string squad, and hopes Camorenesi and Pirlo can play in the first group game.
The loss of big-name players is a killer in a compressed tournament such as the World Cup. Clubs can recover over a 38-game season. World Cup teams get as few as three games. National sides are also built under time pressure, and frequently around a central playmaker. Remove that player, and you remove the fulcrum of the team.
Consider 2002, and how France fared without a gimpy Zinedine Zidane. The champs failed to make it out of the first round, Zidane appearing only for the third group match, unable to contribute much. England’s dreams were crushed twice by injuries to Wayne Rooney; first in the European Championship of 2004, and then again at the 2006 World Cup where the striker never regained his form.
In 1994, a young Claudio Reyna was unable to contribute to the American effort; fast forward to 2006 where a critical injury in a must-win game against Ghana led to a goal and the USA’s departure from Germany.
And in 1998, Holland lost influential midfielder Clarence Seedorf, and a semifinal to Brazil.
This doesn’t bode well for fans of the Beautiful Game.
But like it or not, until FIFA sets strict limits on the number of games a player can participate in each year, the situation is likely to get worse. For these injuries are a symptom of a greater disease in football: The overwhelming monetization of the Beautiful Game. Until clubs and countries alike are reined in, fewer big-name stars will take the pitch, and poorer-quality tournaments will be the result.
THE WOUNDED - OUT:
Michael Essien, Ghana (knee)
Jon Obi Mikel, Nigeria (knee,ankle)
Rio Ferdinand, England (knee)
Michael Ballack, Germany (ankle)
David Beckham, England (Achilles’ tendon)
Charlie Davies, USA (car crash)
Salvador Cabañas, Paraguay (gunshot wound)
Rene Adler, Germany (ribs)
Jose Bosingwa, Portugal (knee)
Carlo Costly, Honduras (foot)
Nani, Portugal (shoulder)
THE WOUNDED - DOUBTS:
Thomas Sorensen, Denmark (elbow)
Mauro Camorensi, Italy (knee)
Andrea Pirlo, Italy (calf)
Didier Drogba, Cote D’Ivoire. (fractured elbow)
Jozy Altidore, USA (ankle sprain)
Oguchi Onyewu, USA (knee)
Arjen Robben, Holland (hamstring)
Martin Skrtel, Slovakia (ankle)
Sulley Muntari, Ghana (thigh)
Wilson Palacios, Honduras (shin)
Ledley King, England (knee)
Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark (thigh)
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.