“Right now, I feel like I’m suffocating and the footballer is eating the man. The words are strong, but they speak well of the weariness of footballer Raphaël Varane, relieved to announce his international retirement at the microphone of Canal +, at the beginning of February 2023. At barely 29 years old. And the now ex-blue drives the point home: “The very high level is like a washing machine, we play all the time, we never stop. ” Enough is enough ? Two months later, the world champion adds, in the magazine GQ: “Physically or mentally, what we ask players today is quite simply above the limits. »
Raphaël Varane is not the first to sound the alarm. In the spring of 2022, the international union of professional footballers (Fifpro) published a study carried out with more than a thousand of its members and a hundred experts (doctors, coaches, physical trainers, etc.). Results: more than half of the players (54%) complained of injuries related to overloaded schedules, 82% of managers testified to “overload causing players mental health and lifestyle problems”. And the union to denounce “an obsolete model which considers players as resources”.
“Rest beaches are sorely lacking”
But, obviously, nothing helps. The governing bodies of football happily subscribe to always more. UEFA will inaugurate from the 2024-2025 season the new formula of its Champions League, which stretches its first phase and obliges each team to two additional matches compared to the current competition. The International Federation (Fifa) decided at its last congress, in mid-March in Kigali (Rwanda), the new format of its 2026 World Cup which should extend the tournament by ten days, reducing the rest off-season. The body also announces a 32-team Club World Cup to take place in the summer of 2025.
“It is, as always, the economy that takes over”, regrets David Terrier, president of the French players’ union (Unfp) and elected on March 14 last president of Fifpro Europe. “One more competition obviously means additional income, and that is what matters most to Fifa President Gianni Infantino. He has just announced that on the issue of calendar overload, Fifa will set up a working group. But we know that, often, this does not lead to much. »
The problem obviously does not only concern the round ball. While waiting for the Rugby World Cup, the French oval has her fingers crossed so that her Blues talents do not get damaged too much in the many shocks to come in the European Cup and in the Top 14. Before the Six Nations Tournament, Captain Antoine Dupont had already warned: “The problem today is that the calendar is too full and there is a severe lack of rest periods. “Same recurring story on the side of handball, basketball or volleyball. Before the Volleyball World Cup last summer, the Blues smuggler Antoine Brizard admitted in our columns to “suffer” the insane schedule by being, he and his teammates, “resigned”.
“Physical and mental well-being is the great forgotten”
“For football players, around 55 games per season would be acceptable, when some accumulate around 70, quantifies Vincent Gouttebarge, head of the medical service at Fifpro and chairman of an International Olympic Committee (IOC) working group on mental health. The physical and mental well-being of the players is the great forgotten. The incessant movements, the reduced recovery between the seasons, the climatic conditions, also, more and more unfavorable, are all elements which weigh on health. And we know very well that players playing both weekends and during the week present greater neuromuscular risks. »
Two arguments are often opposed to the champions of the relief of sporting rhythm. First, only a minority of champions would be affected. “Players like the goalkeeper of the handball Blues Vincent Gérard, also president of our union, sometimes play 80 games per season because they are in high-performance clubs, playing on several tables and in the France team”, explains Benoît Henry, the director of the handball players’ union (AJPH). “Not everyone is in as much demand, of course. But it is precisely our gondola heads that are thus damaged, the very ones that make the ecosystem of sport run, we should not forget that. »
Second objection: with their delirious wages, the players, especially of football, would have nothing to say. “That, we often hear, especially in the general public who misjudges the workload required,” laments David Terrier. “It is not because their salaries are enormous that we can justify pressing the players more than reason, gets carried away Vincent Gouttebarge. These two notions should be disconnected. What some sports leaders are careful not to do. “Those who should really complain are the workers in the factories who earn €1,000 a month,” said Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA, a year ago…
A lack of commitment
“The major difficulty is to find a balance that satisfies the economic interests of all the players in our disciplines, executive Alain Béral, the president of the National Basketball League. International bodies are asking for dates for competitions ensuring the influence and development of our disciplines. But this imposes constraints on the national championships, the base of the pyramid, and on our clubs which also have to play to ensure their profitability. It is an insoluble puzzle. »
The players of the major team sports, also associated with cyclists and a few top athletes, are trying to make their voices heard and to convey a message shared within the National Federation of Sports Associations and Unions (Fnass), but the cause municipality is struggling to move forward in the absence of general mobilization.
“The players don’t really have a militant culture and in addition have a short career, in which they invest themselves headlong. They rarely think of the collective strength they can represent if they bang their fists on the table together,” notes a rugby club president. “There is also the question of the governance of our institutions,” underlines David Terrier. Our international bodies leave very little room for players in their decision-making process. Difficult to be heard. »
The proposals for reducing international windows, even if it means extending them, in order to avoid travel for players as much as possible, or real respect for breaks and rest periods, remain a dead letter. After all, the public asks for more, he who feasts on “boxing day” on Boxing Day in Premier League football, around the fireplace for the Top 14, or in front of the show of the stars on “Christmas day” in the NBA ( 5 games on Christmas Day). So play ladies and gentlemen! Until exhaustion ?
Break times often shortened
The International Football Players Union recommends that every player has at least 28 days off for the off-season, and 14 days during the season. Half of the players testify to a shortened summer break by their club or their national team, and 30% of an equally shorter break during the season.
Still on football, in the event of a match every three days, the incidence of injuries is multiplied by six.
The Ifab, the body which determines the laws of the game for football, should recommend from July 2023 arbitration increasing the effective playing time, as was the case during the 2022 World Cup. This could add the equivalent of more than six games over the whole of a season.