Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Is it time to recognise the harmful impact of the international break on football players and clubs?
Following the commencement of the 2020/21 football season, the heavier workload for players has served as a cause for debate. Along with the increased risk of COVID-19, too many players have been forced to suffer to the extent where even their clubs have been placed into difficult situations regarding their odds for success.
Liverpool centre-back Joe Gomez has become the latest casualty of the international break. Adding to Liverpool’s already harrowing defensive crisis, Gomez suffered a knee injury during England training on 11 November. The following day, it was announced by Liverpool that the England international had undergone successful surgery, with the likelihood of Gomez sitting on the sidelines for the rest of the season now extremely high. With Liverpool balancing between defending their first Premier League title and fighting for the Champions League, the idea of adding periods of international football into their already-tight schedule can only have negative implications for the team. The Reds now find themselves with only one senior centre-back in Joel Matip, whose track record of injuries does not make for great reading for Liverpool fans.
The fact that players are being pressed so hard into these tight schedules undoubtedly presents the footballing authorities as being heartless and unsympathetic. Considering that the global pandemic has heightened the threat of players’ physical health deteriorating, the governing football bodies need to prioritise taking care of the players over imposing tighter schedules to ensure that they do not suffer in an environment where the possibility of being at risk of harm is elevated. Footballers are not super-human – they are human beings and they deserve to be treated as such in the sense that their health must be valued over their talent.
Furthermore, the idea of forcing footballers to travel to different countries is already a risk in itself. With individual countries having their own protocols for dealing with COVID-19, footballers are consequently being exposed to the unpredictability and prospect of being infected with the virus. Players such as Liverpool winger Sadio Mané are having to travel to different continents in order to play in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers. Yet the fact that Mané already tested positive for COVID-19 in early October should act as an indicator of why the international break should not be taking place. Losing a player of Mané’s status is something that no team in the world would be pleased with, let alone Liverpool who are massively weakened defensively. Footballers should not be sent away to play international matches whilst the danger of COVID-19 is manifest. This not only is due to the ramifications on players’ health but also the suffering it inflicts on the team.
On 11 November, Croatia captain Domagoj Vida discovered at half-time that his COVID-19 test was positive. To make matters worse, Vida played the entire first half of Croatia’s 3-3 draw with Turkey. Playing even one minute on the pitch would have been reckless considering he was still awaiting his test result, but 45 minutes is absolutely reckless. The player, however, should not be blamed. Instead, the blame needs to be pointed at the football associations and governing bodies who enabled these international friendlies to take place. Now, players such as Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić are at risk of self-isolation and causing damage to their clubs’ squad depth. Why are international matches, let alone friendlies, taking place at such unprecedented times? The European Championships may be taking place next year, yet the conditions right now for international football are entirely unsafe for all players and their clubs.
Indeed, the suffering of teams due to COVID-19 has played a significant role in their performances this season. The legendary Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive for COVID during the mid-October international break and it’s fair to admit that Juventus missed his presence massively. As a result of Ronaldo’s absence, the Italian champions lost 2-0 in a crucial Champions League fixture against Barcelona. In addition, Juventus were held to two league draws against Crotone and Verona, respectively. Juventus now sit at 5th in the table, four points adrift of leaders A.C. Milan. When one talks about footballing ‘game-changers’, Cristiano Ronaldo is classed as the type of player who can come onto the pitch and have such a strong influence that he can turn a game around in a matter of minutes. Losing the great Cristiano Ronaldo has undeniably hampered Juventus’ chances of success for the season. The example of Ronaldo must be considered when realising how damaging the international break can be on players and clubs.
In addition, Celtic lost four key players earlier in the season, including forward Odsonne Edouard. Losing such a large number of players also results in reduced squad depth and this is evident when observing the SPL table. Celtic currently remain 2nd in the table behind Rangers, and while they have two games in hand, the Scottish champions will be aware that Rangers are on top form. Neil Lennon’s side will need all their top talents and squad depth if they are to win their 10thconsecutive title. In Celtic’s case, the international break has already given them a considerable disadvantage in terms of league success.
Managers and players themselves have been vocal about the recklessness and undesirability of the international break. Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl questioned the logic of sending players away for the international break:
We have seen a few examples in the past where the protocols because somebody is positive, [means]a lot of people in your surrounding [contacts group]have to go into quarantine. This is the bigger problem for me.
Meanwhile Croatia defender Dejan Lovren openly criticised the unfeasible workload players have to deal with:
People wondering why there is so many injuries, it’s simple.
Too many games, impossible to recover, when you know that this year is a weird one(Covid). No proper time off, (personally I had only 8 days off) no proper pre-season and than the crazy schedule!!
— Dejan lovren (@Dejan06Lovren) November 12, 2020
The 2020/21 season is not even halfway complete, yet it cannot be denied that it has been one of continued controversy. Too many players and clubs have suffered due to the compact schedules and nuisance of travelling to other countries to play international matches where COVID measures differ. The health and wellbeing of footballers must be prioritised. For the sake of players, it is imperative that the international break is cancelled during these times of uncertainty.