Kevin De Bruyne had 24 more hours. Twenty-four hours to prepare for the biggest game of his life. It was Monday, July 9, the sun setting on a relatively brisk night in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was World Cup semifinal eve.
Some 1,300 miles away, it was also the first day of preseason.
For De Bruyne, Tuesday’s momentous matchup with France was the penultimate stage of a winding, grueling journey, from East Manchester last summer, with stops in Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, Reykjavik, Girona, Brighton, Rotterdam, Naples, Kharkiv, Cardiff, Basel and Dubai along the way. The semifinal would be De Bruyne’s 71st game of a season that spanned more than 12 months.
Meanwhile, back at Manchester City’s Eastlands training complex, his teammates were beginning a new one.
Soccer’s offseason has always been the shortest in major professional sports. The buffer between 2017-18 and 2018-19 has taken it to new levels of absurdity. The NFL’s 2018 vacation lasts 214 days. Major League Baseball’s was 148. The NBA’s is 130. The English Premier League’s was 89, but even that isn’t a like-to-like comparison. Because EPL teams contest more than the EPL. EPL players play for more than just EPL teams. Add on the Champions League, and the break was 76 days. Factor in the World Cup, and it was slashed to 26.
“It’s a long road, 11 months,” City manager Pep Guardiola said with concealed incredulity in July. “We start the season, and players are still playing the last season. … I would prefer another situation. All the managers would.”
But a convergence of compelling incentives and clashing trends won’t allow it. The sport is increasingly demanding. The importance of rest and recovery, supported by heaps of data, is increasingly recognized. Many within the game understand that workloads, both mental and physical, are getting out of control.
Yet offseasons are getting shorter. Powerbrokers crave more high-leverage games, not fewer. The beautiful game’s economy is driving it toward a breaking point. Nobody is willing to relent.
Welcome to soccer’s unsolvable dilemma.
The shortest offseason ever
When Manchester City reconvened for preseason camp on that cloudy July day, it did so with precisely two players who had started a Premier League game the previous spring. Another 16 were away at the World Cup, or decompressing after elimination.
Across town, two days later, Manchester United had 12 World Cup absentees. And manager Jose Mourinho, still working as a Russian TV pundit, was already bemoaning the compressed calendar.
“Three weeks [off] is the minimum that their body and soul needs,” Mourinho said of his players, some of whom wouldn’t be back in training until four days before the Premier League opener. “[It’s] the minimum for them to return and think about football again.”
Guardiola “would prefer to give them more time. One month, one month and a half,” he said on City’s U.S. tour.
That’s around what elite pros used to get. As recently as last decade, even after major tournaments, three or three-and-a-half weeks was the norm.
Every Premier League player has a contractual right to those three weeks of vacation. In some other countries, clubs are obligated to grant four. But seasons were beginning. Players have “options” to waive those clauses. And as City fullback Kyle Walker recently joked: “It’s not really an option, is it?”
Walker returned after less than two weeks off to start the Community Shield. Others have made similar sacrifices, further shortening the shortest offseason in Premier League history. Less than a month after De Bruyne played his final 90 minutes in Russia, he was off the bench in City’s Premier League opener. Three days later, he was injured, and possibly out for months.
Neither clubs nor national teams contest significantly more matches now than they did 20 years ago. But with the game quicker, more unrelentingly physical, and more taxing than ever before, suits acknowledged the recklessness of playing on one day’s rest. They admitted that grinding through four Premier League games in 10 days, as Man United did to open the 1995-96 season, was ridiculous.
Rather than lighten the load, though, they simply spread it out. They elongated an already endless season, converting insufficient between-games rest into a dangerously brief offseason.
And the in-season rest still doesn’t suffice. Top clubs often play two games per week throughout the fall. They still play four in 10 days over the festive period. Guardiola has called the fixture congestion “a disaster” for players.
Beginning next season, the Premier League will introduce a winter break purporting to grant them a reprieve. But it will merely exacerbate congestion elsewhere. It will likely be abused, interpreted as a window for showpiece friendlies in a rich emirate you may or may not have heard of.
To tweak the calendar is to dance around the fundamental problem: There is too much soccer.
And there is too much soccer because there is too much money at stake.
The economics behind soccer’s rest problem
Invincibility was within reach. Barcelona could smell it. This past May, Lionel Messi and friends were 180 minutes from the first unbeaten season in La Liga history. Legs were tiring, but immortality beckoned; only Levante and Real Sociedad stood in the way.
And Barcelona – supposedly “more than a club,” in reality just another of several gluttons – sabotaged its players’ run at eternal fame.
In between Levante and Sociedad, it hastily scheduled a mid-week friendly in South Africa. It presumably promised the Mamelodi Sundowns that Messi and other stars would play. So three days before the trip, the Blaugrana rested Messi and Gerard Pique for the first of two games that should have taken them into the record books. Invincibility swirled down the drain. The reason behind the folly?
It’s the driver of so much in modern soccer, and the reason player workloads will intensify before they ease up. It’s the reason clubs go globetrotting before, during and after their seasons. It’s why Nations Leagues are replacing international friendlies, and why a European superleague, in the words of former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, is “inevitable.” Wenger is “certain” it will be played on weekends, with domestic matches during the week. In other words, he’s certain too much soccer will become more soccer.
The sport, at club level, has become an arms race. Financial Fair Play regulations have capped spending, and therefore squad-building capability, based on revenue. Revenue, therefore, fuels success. To chase one is to chase the other.
So clubs hunt for new revenue sources, which means games. The more games, the more revenue. The more important the games, the more revenue. The higher the quality of competition, the more revenue. And once a cash flow is established, there’s no turning back.
Why the dilemma is unsolvable
Is there a solution?
FIFA, in the past, has pushed top flights around Europe to trim down to 18 teams. Doing so would shave four games off calendars without harming on-field products. It’d alleviate stress and do wonders for the sport. It’s the easiest fix. It’s also unfeasible.
Doing so in England, for example, would require approval from 14 EPL clubs. At maximum, only six or seven would support such a motion, because it’d mean two fewer seats at the domestic game’s most lucrative table. The Premier League fought back last decade, and would again if a similar proposal was brought to the floor today.
It, like other suggestions, is a pipe dream. Modern soccer is a competition between multiple governing bodies and their members for pieces of the revenue pie. The only way to appease all of them is to grow the pie, rather than redistribute it. That’s the motivation behind almost every decision FIFA and UEFA make. And in the short term, it’s incompatible with fixture congestion relief.
So the sport’s organizers will continue to ignore the scarcity principle. They will continue to drain the product by mercilessly emptying the tanks of the engines – the performers – that propel it.
Managers continue to warn them. There is, Mourinho said last month, “no respect for the clubs, no respect for the players.”
“It’s a bit confused,” he later continued, rather cryptically. “It’s going in a strange direction.”
Guardiola, during his first December grind in England, was more blunt.
“It is a problem all around the world,” the City boss said of the overcrowded schedule. “Now they are talking about a World Cup of 48 teams. We are going to kill the players.”
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