PFA CEO, Maheta Molango writing for The Guardian...
For football fans, as the song says, this is meant to be the most wonderful time of the year. A special feature of the English game is the rapid succession of festive fixtures in front of big Christmas crowds. Going to a game is a central and longstanding part of many family traditions. But after the feast of football at the men’s World Cup, the current glut of games risks feeling a little like that final mince pie that proves difficult to get down.
To stretch the analogy further, overindulgence at Christmas is often followed by a much-needed period of abstinence in January. Not this season. In the men’s game, the match schedule for January represents a chaotic jigsaw of league fixtures and domestic cup ties seemingly shoehorned into whatever gap is available. It’s enough to make even the most ravenous football fan think about loosening their belt.
Of course, the knock-on effects of hosting a winter World Cup mean that these are unique circumstances. However, among players, the nature of this year’s fixture calendar has helped focus minds on the need for change. There’s a growing realisation that, if those who run the game won’t take action, it will need to be the players who, eventually, say “enough is enough”.
Among the many news stories coming out of Qatar over the past month was confirmation by the Fifa Council of a new 32-team World Club Cup competition for men every four years. Details are still to be confirmed but judging by the response of the World Leagues Forum, the body representing top leagues around the world including the Premier League, this was news to them and their clubs.
And if it came as a surprise to them, then the players who will actually be taking part seem to be even further down the pecking order. Players aren’t even being made aware of changes in advance, let alone consulted, when they should be a central part of the decision-making process.
We have always been clear that fixture congestion is, primarily, a player wellbeing issue. As the players’ union, the PFA knows that the relentless nature of the schedule is having an impact on the physical and mental health of our members.
It isn’t just about playing less games. The PFA was able to broker a meeting between Gianni Infantino and senior players from the men’s and women’s games in Manchester earlier this year. They made clear that measures such as properly protected in-season and between-season breaks must be introduced.
It’s important to remember that by no means is this an issue that is exclusive to the men’s game. At that same Fifa Council meeting last month, a new World Club Cup competition for the women’s game was also confirmed. The continued growth of the women’s game inevitably means more demand for domestic and international competition. Yet football seems to be repeating the same mistakes when it comes to treating the players like robots.
A bespoke approach to the women’s calendar is needed. Concerns are rightly being raised that the current group of players are essentially being used as a live ‘test case’. How many games can they withstand? When leading players are being forced to use their own judgment to manage their workload and are making clear the impact the calendar is having on them, football needs to listen.
As well as being about player welfare, getting a grip on the fixture calendar should also be viewed as a business priority. Other sports seem to get this more than football, which continues to saturate its own market. How is it good for the product when the performers, constantly managing fatigue or injury, are never playing at 100%? How is it good that the window to enjoy the biggest stars in their prime shrinks as careers get shorter? How is it a positive when even fans who love the game the most believe there is too much football being played?
A coordinated, player-first approach must be taken to the structure of the calendar and the number of games played. This isn’t something that will be achieved by tinkering around the edges, with the odd set of cup replays being scrapped. It definitely won’t work when any gap is then filled by money-spinning international tours, and when the fixture calendar becomes a battleground in political sparring between governing bodies.
When it comes to the fixture calendar and the number of games being played, something has to give. That something should never be the fitness and wellbeing of the players.