How much do international breaks weigh on top players and teams in club football?
Photo [cropped]: Jan SOLO, CC-BY-SA-2.0
Many fans deride the international break. Their favourite players go absent, often travelling long distances to represent their countries. Unless the players belong to the fans' national team, the games hold little interest. Save for the major tournaments, they tend not to be as competitive as club football either. To address this without abolishing international football, UEFA created its new Nations League. It's a competitive environment with qualification for the Euros at stake. Teams of roughly equal strength are grouped together. Time will show whether that increases fan interest. Meanwhile, the added burden negatively affects players.
If there is a prize on offer, footballers want to win it. The team that wins the inaugural Nations League will be remembered. Thus, the top player will play more minutes than the cameos they often give in friendlies. Fatigue will set in. Injuries will arise. The impact won't be visible immediately. In the long run, however, the toll will become evident. If managers aren't complaining already, they soon will.
The money involved in club football is now so huge; managers would stop their players from going on international duty if they could. Even though FIFA frowns on it, many try. Sometimes they succeed. Players rule themselves out of matches for "personal reasons" then play the following weekend for their club. Some temporarily retire from international football citing exhaustion. Clubs pay their wages and that comes first.
UEFA tries to generate funds from all possible means. National federations, too. They'll be eager to progress in the competition. Reaching the top level and winning raises their profile, thereby selling tickets and merchandise. All the usual sponsors from around the world are eager to see the Nations League succeed to help them get their brands in front of even more consumers, as well.
Footballers are like the environment, however. They have limited resources that can be wasted and used up too soon. They cannot remain in peak condition year-round with continually increasing demands on their bodies. There is the argument that they earn the money, but the bonuses paid for international duty don't compare to their club wages. If they did, the players still only have so much to give. When it's spread too thin, the quality deteriorates, just like the air we breathe.
The African Cup of Nations was pushed to season's end when CAF listened to club's concerns for their players' health and availability. Players are no longer asked to leave their clubs for an extended period mid-season to compete elsewhere, possibly return with injury or need time to re-synchronise with teammates. Often AFCON participants arrived back at their club to find their place taken and role reduced. A top African player was less valued than a European or South American alternative because clubs knew in advance they would lose his services during a critical stretch in their campaign.
Liverpool are genuine title contenders in the Premier League for the first time in years. Would that be the case if their entire attacking trio, Mo Salah, Saido Mane and Naby Keita were set to leave for a month in January? While the Nations League doesn't schedule matches during the club calendar, the risk of injury and lost momentum remain critical issues.
Jurgen Klopp is correct when he says all those looking for a piece of the pie must step back to consider the players. More meaningful international fixtures during the season do not help. Perhaps the international breaks for friendlies in midseason should be eliminated, with short tournaments like the Nations League, which maxes out at nine games per country, held in the summer. Something needs to be done to lighten the load on players.