The horrible spate of injuries to elite footballers during this international window has serious repercussions for both their international teams and, more importantly, their clubs.
Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain still have work to do in order to assure qualification from their Champions League groups, but they’ll need to complete their task without Gavi and Warren Zaïre-Emery, respectively.
Imagine the repercussions if both of those teams found themselves demoted to the Europa League in December? It would be a financial catastrophe for the Catalan club and catastrophically embarrassing for PSG.
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Although this is taking the hypothesis far enough, if either of those scenarios came to pass, it’s arguable that former teammates, Xavi Hernandez and Luis Enrique, might need to be concerned for their continued employment. I still expect both teams to get themselves through the test of their final two group games, but it will be less easy, much less safe, without their teenage talents.
Real Madrid are through, but their loss of both Eduardo Camavinga and Vinícius Júnior for the next few months adds to a drastically long injury list given that Thibaut Courtois, Éder Militão and Aurélien Tchouaméni are all medium- to long-term absentees. Neither Arda Güler nor Dani Ceballos seem able to get themselves fighting fit for much more than a day or two.
What’s not to be sneered at is the €5.6 million Madrid could earn if they win their last couple of group matches, at home to Napoli and away to Union Berlin.
They are fortunate enough to have an amiable run of LaLiga matches from now until their next really stern test, the return match against Atletico Madrid in early February. Instead of feeling like Madrid can really turn the screw on their primary title rivals (Atleti, Barca, and, yes, Girona) by producing a two-month power play, Carlo Ancelotti is left thinking, One more serious injury and we’re really struggling to get through the programme of LaLiga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League.
As for their Spanish Supercopa semifinal against Atletico on Jan. 10, barring miracles, Madrid will have to face the side that has already beaten them 3-1 this season without the majority of their stars currently on the injury list (Tchouameni being the possible exception).
There are far more important victims to be considered, though, as leading players now consistently creak and crack with fatigue-induced injuries. Those victims are, of course, the players themselves.
I like and respect the work that FIFPRO, the global the players’ union, is doing. Until footballers genuinely feel that they can, and will, unite and strike, it still seems as though FIFPRO has a small voice. The question, though, in the face of unprecedented damage being done to our footballers’ physical and mental wellbeing, is how well that small voice is pinpointing the threat? How well it is beginning to draw attention to a real, growing and detrimental problem?
FIFPRO recently reported some shocking statistics. Vinícius had, by the age of 22, already played 18,876 minutes of club and national team football; more than twice as much as Ronaldinho at the same age. Pedri, who has consistently been suffering the most awful injury problems, by the age of 20 had played more than 12,000 minutes; 25% more than Xavi at the same age. Kylian Mbappé, by the age of 24, has played 26,952 minutes; an astonishing 48% more minutes than Thierry Henry at the same age. Jude Bellingham has played 30% more minutes of competitive football by his 20th birthday than Wayne Rooney had at the same age. These are spectacularly troublesome facts.
After winning the Nations League in June, Rodri told me that there was no way he’d continue to play the amount of competitive minutes he’d endured last season. Otherwise, in his own words, there was no way “I’ll be playing professionally aged 34 or 35.”
Happily, or perhaps that should read “fortuitously,” the phenomenal Bellingham is not one of Madrid’s long-term injured. His shoulder injury should have cleared up for one of Los Blancos’ next two matches.
Before turning 20, David Beckham had accumulated 829 first-team minutes and Steven Gerrard 2,853. Bellingham’s total upon reaching that age in June was already 14,445 minutes. Think about that for a moment. Broken down into matches, that’s nine for Beckham, 32 for Gerrard and 160 for Madrid’s No. 5. Is anyone thinking about the long-term effects on this absolutely wonderful footballer?
Given that Vinicius is now out thanks to a hamstring injury picked up on Brazil duty, let me remind you that between August and April last season, he racked up more than 56,000 kilometres (almost 35,000 miles) of international travel. That’s something that fosters fatigue and hinders recuperation.
In light of both the Champions League and the World Club Cup dramatically increasing players’ number of games from next season onward, FIFPRO have put forward a couple of suggestions. Hopefully not into an echo chamber.
They recommend that players take an absolute minimum of 28 days off between seasons, that footballers are firmly guaranteed a minimum of 14 free days during a season (with no matches or training), that squads are given one day off per week and, finally, that there are strict limits on how many consecutive matches any player who’s playing two or more times per week can be exposed to. Simple? You’d think so.
Now there’s no point in denying that even in this extreme and unlikeable instance, almost every cloud has a silver lining.
At Madrid, Brahim Díaz has just begun to show why he placed huge faith in himself, turned down AC Milan’s attempt to sign him permanently after a successful loan period and returned to the Santiago Bernabeu (mostly the bench.) He’s clearly made of the right stuff, he’s got that chutzpah and flair that the crowd love and, now, with so many injured around him, he’ll get more opportunities to show his qualities.
What of Fermín López? You still may not be wholly clear about who he is or how he plays. In early summer he was looking, best case, at a season trying to prove himself with Barcelona B. Good training sessions on tour, an unbelievable few minutes in which he produced a goal and an assist against Madrid in the Las Vegas friendly, and suddenly he’s begun to feature for Spain’s champions. With Gavi out, Pedri taking baby steps back after injury, ditto Frenkie de Jong, there is much, much more game time for Fermin.
At Atleti, the deluge of injuries they’ve been suffering means that Rodrigo Riquelme is playing often enough to have been picked for Spain and Pablo Barrios’ importance to the first team has soared. At PSG, Zaïre-Emery’s absence opens the door to more playing time for Cher Ndour, Vitinha, Lee Kang-In and even Kylian’s little brother, Ethan Mbappé. It’s not all bleak, not all bad news. For the sake of balance, it’s important not to lose sight of that.
Right now, though, our football calendar is like a crushing machine, gnawing at the physical fitness, mental health, recuperation powers and general happiness of all our leading footballers. If left unchecked, that calendar is going to get more unfriendly, more relentless and more damaging.
Those of us with a voice need to stand up and be counted. It’s time to treat our top footballers like human beings, not products.