On the surface, the argument makes perfect sense – football players, especially young football players – should not be asked to play competitive football 11 months out of 12. By asking UEFA to mandate the national European FAs to only select players for one international tournament per season, the European Club Association (ECA) feels that they well prevent burnout / injuries in young prodigies, and thereby not only having them available at the start of each season but also prolonging their careers.
Other requests made by the ECA include a minimum of seven weeks without international football following major tournaments (this would apply to the June friendlies as much as the early August friendlies) and a review of the international calendar to reduce ‘meaningless’ friendlies. In the words of AC Milan director and ECA vice-president Umberto Gambini:
“The national managers do not have the players for long enough and the club managers are left with three or four players for training before this weekend’s league matches and the restart of the Champions League next week.”
All fair points, and you could also make the argument that since the clubs pay the salaries, they should have a (limited) say in how much a player exerts himself throughout the season. Arsene Wenger has been going on and on about it for years, so has Alex Ferguson, and both of them have a good point.
The key factor here is to protect young players from burnout, but also to reduce international friendlies which give national managers little room to develop a coherent playing strategy (although they get to try out new players). The case of Lionel Messi in 2008 comes to mind, when Barcelona initially refused to release him for the 2008 Olympics saying they would interfere with his pre-season training and put an unnecessary risk on a player prone to injuries. The club relented, eventually, partly due to Messi’s insistence in representing his team at the national stage. The Messi case is important because Barcelona took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and CAS ruled in Barcelona’s favor saying that they could keep Messi away from the Olympics if they chose to do so.
And therein lies the crux of the debate – football clubs and their managers have an over-riding priority to look after their success in domestic and continental competitions (as evidenced by Vidic’s withdrawal from the Serbia squad at United’s request, seeing as Rio Ferdinand is injured again), while national FAs and their managers are primarily concerned with their own fortunes. The friendlies generate revenue for the national FAs, so they keep getting scheduled. The Olympics offer a further chance of glory, so national team coaches will, given the chance, select the Messi’s of tomorrow for both the Euros and the Olympics if they deem it necessary for their chances of success.
The only solution is a compromise, and it would start with both football clubs (and domestic leagues / continental competitions by extension) as well as national FAs (and regional bodies like UEFA) to mutually reduce the demands made on players. Leagues can work with a reduced domestic calendar, cup competitions could be simplified and made shorter, while FIFA and UEFA can work on reducing the international commitments of players (especially friendlies) and working on a solution where, for example, European teams can send their under-23 OR B teams to the Olympics if they feel the need to, without submitting them to any sanctions a la Wolves and Blackpool.
It won’t happen, because both sides – the clubs and the countries – will not miss out on an opportunity to make money.
So while we talk about friendlies being boring, pre-season tours being pointless or debate the merits of a winter break (and let’s leave the Europa Cup format for another day), it’s worth keeping in mind that neither side is willing to concede an inch (or their profits) while making demands on the other side.
The ECA are right in saying that FIFA / UEFA should work with them in reducing the demands on footballers. But they need to do it themselves too, and it won’t happen as long as national teams and football clubs stand in opposite corners snubbing each other’s value to the sport.