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A lot has been said over the last few years about the grueling nature of the yearly football schedule around the world. Several competitions have been expanded to include more teams. Consequently, players play an increased number of matches every season. Additionally, some teams are involved in two or even three competitions at the same time. In such circumstances, some players may play two whole matches a week during various parts of the season, leaving them with inadequate recovery time between matches.
The research pursuing a specific measure to be used as a gold standard to gauge or quantify recovery following exhaustive exercise is ongoing. It is also the subject of much debate within the field of exercise physiology. In the scientific literature, there is much information about how long it takes to replenish glycogen, the primary energy fuel for muscles during intense physical exertion, such as match play.
Players’ glycogen levels can return to normal pre-match levels within 36 hours if they follow a proper dietary regimen, take the proper supplements, and get adequate rest. But glycogen replenishment is only one piece of the puzzle.
Multiple physiological mechanisms play a vital role in a full recovery, and some of these parameters may actually take a week or longer to be normalized, depending on the load of physical exertion. For example, following exhaustive exercise, the immune system is depressed and several neurological mechanisms suffer changes. These changes are not fully understood, but they take time to be fully restored. Also, following back-to-back competitive matches, players may experience debilitating effects for several days—or even up to a week—including muscle tears and severe soreness.
Take, for example, the Euro 2012 tournament schedule. In the first phase of the competition, participants played an average of three matches in less than ten days. In a phone conversation with Dr. John Ivy, a world renowned exercise physiologist at the University of Texas, he told me that he highly doubted that a player would have been able to have a full recovery when that many matches were scheduled in such a short period of time.
The planning behind this year’s Euro schedule was so preposterous and absurd that Portugal, having played their quarterfinal match ahead of Spain, actually had an additional 48 hours of rest and time for preparation when they faced the Spanish team in the semifinals. Germany also had the same advantage when they faced Italy in the other semifinal match. How can anyone justify two teams going into the semifinals to face their opponents while having a clear advantage of an additional 48 hours’ rest and preparation? Moreover, Spain, when they played Italy in the final, had an additional 24 hours of preparation and rest time. It makes no sense whatsoever! It is clear that whoever put that schedule together had no clue about exercise physiology or any of the principles that govern the field. The organizers surely were oblivious to the dynamics of the preparation and recovery processes, and they certainly did not have the physiological interests of the players at heart.
One could hardly have asked more from players who were exhausted and completely drained, prior to the European tournament, from having just participated in a full season of football in their respective club team competitions.
“The recovery process is interconnected and significantly more complex than people think. I would bet my money that most of these guys playing in this year’s EURO tournament were not physically and mentally at their best after playing a full season,” Dr. Ivy said.
In fact, a study by Swedish researchers from the University of Linkoping examined the correlation between European footballers’ exposure to match play in the months before the 2002 World Cup and their injuries and performances during the World Cup. The researchers observed that players who underperformed in the World Cup had played more matches in the weeks prior to the competition compared to those who performed better than expected.
Researchers also observed that almost two-thirds of the players who had played more than one match a week during the last 10 weeks of the season either incurred injures or underperformed in the World Cup. The root and solution to the problem may be closely connected to the gross commercialization and the exorbitant amount of money that revolves around this beautiful game.
In a phone interview, Dr. Tobias Moskowitz, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and author of the bestselling book Scorecasting, warned me about the economic imperatives that are pushing players to their limits.
“The economic incentive is there for more games and the hefty schedule that is in place. The fans want to go to and see as many games as possible, generating more revenues from ticket sales. You also have higher TV revenues from more advertisements. All of that adds up, and the players don’t get paid per game,” Dr. Moskowitz said.
For the owners of the teams and the league bosses who control the game, it really does not matter if the players play too many games.
“It may be that the league and players have to be willing to accept fewer financial rewards in order to obtain a more humane calendar,” Dr. Moskowitz said.
As one can see, the owners’ and league bosses’ pursuit of profit at any cost is so endemic and overwhelming that they trampled upon their own mistakes, putting forth a pathetic calendar that was the subject of ridicule and scorn—for one of the most important competitions in the world. Such incompetence and carelessness is alarming. The passion of the masses around the world for the game can be overwhelmingly touching, bringing tears of joy and giving ordinary folks who have nothing a reason to smile at the end of the day. However, at the same time, it leaves these rogue “organizers” free, unaccounted for, and off the hook. They go about their business as usual and commit the same stupid mistakes, disrespecting and hurting the image of the beautiful game. It is about time that the players turn the tables on them once and for all! The players united will never be defeated!
Ricardo Guerra is a Brazilian journalist who served as Head Exercise Physiologist for the Egyptian National Football Team in 2002 and as Exercise Physiologist for the Qatar National Football Team in 2008.