Soccer-English fans relish festive feast as Europe shuts down


By Martyn Herman

LONDON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Russia manager Fabio Capello believes Christmas-time demands on players are crackers but for most people in England an extra large portion of festive football is as traditional as turkey and mince pies.

While most of Europe's top leagues take a mini-break at the end of the year, or a longer one if you play in Germany, English fixtures pile up like discarded gift wrapping paper.

For all the talk of burnout and harm being done to England's chances at international level, soccer fans demand their Christmas fixes and the Premier League, Football League and the TV executives are happy to supply.

Starting this Saturday, each Premier League club will have four fixtures in 12 frantic days - a punishing workload but at least not as 'Scrooge-like' as the days up until 1957 when English teams played on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said earlier this year it was no coincidence that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund contested the 2013 Champions League final as their players could recharge batteries and heal niggles during a winter break.

Demands placed on players will be in even sharper focus this season with a World Cup looming in Brazil in June.

Former England manager Capello voiced concerns about his old team at the recent World Cup draw which paired them with Italy in the jungle heat of Manaus.

"Italy sometimes arrive tired but in England the football is stronger, faster - they never stop," explained the Italian.

"In Italy there is a small break," said Capello who added that fatigue was a factor when he was in charge for England's disappointing showing at the 2010 World Cup.

"It's always the same problem - it's simple. Physically (English players) are good in September, October, November. In March they are so-so, in May - no."


The international flavour of the Premier League means it is not just English players who work overtime over Christmas and New Year but nonetheless every member of Roy Hodgson's squad will arrive at the end of the season having had no respite.

It is a problem Germany coach Joachim Loew does not have to contend with as the Bundesliga has shut down for a four or five week winter break every season since 1986-87, initially to avoid the worst of the weather.

Clubs such as Bayern Munich, who have German internationals Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Goetze and Thomas Mueller in their ranks, usually take advantage of the break to fly off somewhere warm and sunny for a training camp.

With only 18 teams the Bundesliga is best-placed to factor in a long break although not everyone is in favour.

"We have the biggest population as a country from the five big federations but the only ones to be playing with 18 teams," said Bayern's honorary president Franz Beckenbauer.

"On top of that we afford ourselves the luxury of a winter break after which we have to start from scratch again."

The Spanish, Italian and French leagues play until this weekend before restarting the first week of January - hardly a winter break as much as a reflective pause.

Spain's traditional 'paron navideno' (Christmas break) is deeply rooted in the nation's Catholic heritage although critics say La Liga is missing out on a prime opportunity to fill stadiums.

Analysts say Spanish clubs should be earning more from TV rights and exploiting the holiday could help trim the financial gap to the Premier League which earns more than twice as much as La Liga.

"It is very difficult to compete with the Premier League but we have to try to catch up and continue to push ahead of the other major leagues in Europe," said Javier Tebas, president of Spain's professional soccer league (LFP).

"I am the first who would like to see more fans in the stadiums but we have to be realistic."

Trying to push through any changes in Spain would come up against stiff opposition from players and religious groups and it is a similar situation in Italy where there is no culture of playing matches at a time when family comes first.

Serie A plays its final round of games before Christmas at the weekend, returning on Jan. 6.

An agreement struck between the Italian footballers' union AIC and the authorities gives Serie A and Lega Pro (the old Serie C and D) players a minimum of seven days each season in which they cannot play or train.

"The players are very keen on the winter break and the longer it is the better," said the AIC's head of union affairs Stefano Sartori.

"We have lots of foreign players who want to go home for the Christmas period."

However, things might be changing.

Serie B introduced Boxing Day games last season and attendances were healthy. This year they will also play on Dec. 29 before closing down until Jan. 25.

Two years ago in France the clubs' union (UCPF) proposed introducing Christmas matches but, backed by their players' union, the footballers voted 95 percent against it.

There will be no Ligue 1 games between Dec. 23-Jan. 3 but vice-president of Ligue 2 club Nancy, Nicolas Holveck, said France should follow the English example.

"Players' unions are against it but I don't understand why," he told Reuters.

"We have a lot of African and South American players. They go back home and it can be catastrophic because they spend two or three days of their holidays on a plane."

Winter breaks are not an issue in Norway and Sweden as both play in the summer but in Denmark the season runs from July to May with a shutdown from December to February - not an ideal scenario for clubs still involved in the Champions League. (Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Julien Pretot, Terry Daley and Iain Rogers, editing by Tony Jimenez)

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