Staff Writer, Elijah Bodinetz discusses the impact that a plethora of football matches has on players, with a heavy focus on the hinderence it can have on young players’ development.
On November 20, Spanish footballer, Pablo Gavi, was confirmed to have suffered a tear to his ACL whilst playing against Georgia for his native Spain on Sunday. This moment follows a string of similar, recent cases where footballers, especially young, are suffering significant injuries. This begs the question, are young players being overplayed? Furthermore, the broader issue of player welfare and the mistreatment of players is a hot debate, rekindled after this recent injury-ridden international break.
Gavi, winner of the 2022 Golden Boy award, given to the most talented young player in world football, has taken the football world by storm since his debut in 2021 at the remarkable age of just 17. He has gone on to become a key member of Barcelona’s and Spain’s squads, as one of their youngest ever players, currently valued at a staggering €90 million. With all this success, it has meant Gavi has been thrust into the limelight of professional football, without much of a gradual integration, denying him a proper transition from a 17-year-old to an established professional athlete.
This is a similar situation to many others, and in the context of Barcelona, the case of Pedri springs to mind. He, like Gavi, followed the traditional path of young Spanish talents making the leap into first team football. Pedri similarly didn’t experience much of a gradual process to ease into this new environment, as he played 73 matches in total during his breakthrough season in 2020/21 at age 18, the highest number in Europe for any player in that season. Whilst this seemed like a great achievement in the moment, which is undeniably was, he is now facing the consequences for this extreme workload at a young age.
Since that breakout season, in the subsequent season, he missed a total of 39 games through football-related injuries. In the following season, he missed 15 games, and this season he has already missed 12. There is no way to be totally certain that his heavy workload caused this, however there is certainly evidence to suggest this played a part, with Spanish national teammate, Pau Torres, recently saying, “If Barca had decided to give him his rest time, I think that Pedri, today, would be better physically, because he has been suffering from injuries since that moment”.
So with Gavi’s recent severe injury putting him out of action for the next several months, it raises questions over the clubs and governing bodies and their responsibility in protecting and managing these young players better. With an ever-increasing number of games thanks to bodies such as UEFA and FIFA, clubs have more responsibility than ever to manage players’ gametime appropriately. Last season, Lamine Yamal became the youngest ever player to play in La Liga, coming on last season as a substitute for Barcelona at just 15 years of age. When regarding Yamal, there is currently more scrutiny on the club and management to get things right regarding his fitness.
According to journalist Jordi Cardero, ‘Barça’s management have decided to take it easy with Lamine Yamal. [They] said that they’ll be alternating him between a starting XI position and substitute so that he is not overplayed.’ The world is watching to see if this strategy comes to fruition, but there is undeniably more pressure this time for the youngster to be managed more safely.
One of the key criticisms of football’s largest governing bodies is the increased number of games being played, especially during international breaks. With the UEFA Nations League being added into the footballing calendar in 2018, this was met with heavy backlash from players, coaches and fans alike. Belgium star, Kevin De Bruyne, led the criticisms of the competition, saying “for me, the Nations League is unimportant”. “As players, we can talk about vacation or rest, but we have no say. We follow what we need to do and that’s it.” This is a shared opinion amongst many of those within the professional environment, as player welfare is often judged to play an understudy role to the profits and publicity that these games provide for the businesspeople within the game.
Alongside the number of games being played, another key issue being raised by players and coaches, is the kick-off times of matches, and how TV agreements are given greater importance than the welfare of players, following the model explained previously. Jurgen Klopp famously clashed with a BT Sport interviewer, as he suggested “because we play at 12:30 they had no chance. If we played tonight, they would be here, and we would give it a try”. “The broadcasters wanted us to play at 12:30pm. Thank you very much for your help again”.
Klopp’s frustration was clear to see, highlighting the lack of empathy from television broadcasters as players have to go from playing international football just 2 or 3 days before having to play club football again. This lack of understanding and perhaps common sense continues to fuel the debate surrounding player welfare, and the incompetence of the governing bodies there to represent and protect these players.
This issue of player welfare and a lack of workers’ rights would be indisputable in many careers. Perhaps due to the fame and undeniable wealth that many professional football players earn in the elite level of today’s game, many of us, including none more so than football’s governing bodies, lack compassion and a level of understanding for players.
These people are not robots, and consequently, as profit and ticket sales continue to rise, player welfare will only continue to suffer, and young players will continue to suffer long-lasting effects of injuries that could have potentially been prevented had there not been such a rigorous calendar put in place.