Why soccer players are demanding change to a calendar that has left them ‘at the limit’

Damond Isiaka
12 Min Read

London, England
CNN
 — 

Just how much soccer is too much soccer?

It’s a question on the lips of players, managers and executives alike, as the sport comes to terms with a seemingly never-ending schedule.

For those affected, frustration with the game’s governing bodies over a lack of consideration and an arduous calendar is reaching a boiling point.

Representatives from players’ unions and professional leagues made this clear on May 30 at the annual Player Workload event in London, which was organized by FIFPRO (the global representative association for footballers) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the trade union for players in England and Wales.

“I think we are worried that that people make decisions in isolation and without seeing the big picture,” the CEO of the PFA, Maheta Molango, told CNN Sport at the event. “Everyone says to you, ‘my calendar works.’ Yeah, of course it does. But then when you look at this in conjunction then it doesn’t.

“We live right now in an industry where the people who are supposed to be the parents of football have gone down to the level of the kids to fight for the same toys.”

Molango speaks during a panel session at the event.

‘An industry-wide issue’

European club teams are preparing for a revamped UEFA Champions League – the most prestigious competition in European club soccer – which will see teams play at least an additional two games. In a departure from the well-established six-game group stage format, clubs will now play eight fixtures in a single 36-team league.

The top eight teams will automatically advance to the round of 16, while clubs that place ninth down to 24th will compete in a two-legged play-off to determine the other eight teams that move on. This means that 16 clubs will play a minimum of 10 matches Champions League matches per season, all before even advancing to the knockout stage.

On the international level, the European Championships expanded from 16 teams to 24 in 2016, while the 2026 World Cup – which will be hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico – will go from 32 to 48 sides.

Clubs are also coming to terms with a revamped FIFA Club World Cup competition, which normally takes place annually and has seven teams from each continental federation battling for the trophy.

The tournament will now take place every four years and expand to 32 teams, who will compete over a whole month during the summer.

Manchester City hoist the Club World Cup trophy in December 2023.

“Are they going to come up with an inter-galactic competition next?!” said La Liga President Javier Tebas during a panel session at the London event.

For the unions, this overhaul was a step too far. FIFPRO Europe made a legal claim against FIFA on June 13, “challenging the legality of FIFA’s decisions to unilaterally set the International Match Calendar and, in particular, the decision to create and schedule the FIFA Club World Cup 2025.”

Related article
Soccer union launches legal action against FIFA over fixture congestion

The PFA, the French players’ union –- the Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels (UNFP) – and the Italian union, Associazione Italiana Calciatori (AIC), have all joined the case against FIFA as co-claimants

CNN has reached out to FIFA for a response.

Molango described the 2025 Club World Cup as “the tipping point” and explained that action had been taken to bring about the “right level” of consultation with the unions and players and to tackle a “physically impossible” calendar.

It is unclear whether the tournament will be able to go ahead while the legal claim is ongoing.

Molango also told CNN that the Club World Cup is not being looked at in isolation and that the Super League ruling in December opened the door to “solving issues through collective bargaining.”

Consequences of congestion

According to research conducted by FIFPRO and Football Benchmark, 23 year-old Real Madrid and Brazil superstar Vinícius Júnior has played more than double the amount of matches that his compatriot and former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho played before turning 24. He is set to represent his nation at the Copa América this summer.

Ahead of the Champions League final on June 1, Vinícius’ Madrid teammate Jude Bellingham had played 18,486 minutes in his young career, spread across club and international competition.

Bellingham has been exposed to a lot of first-team soccer at a young age.

In comparison, England and Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney – who, like Bellingham, became a first team regular at the age of 16 – played 15,481 minutes before turning 21. David Beckham played almost five times less the number of minutes that Bellingham has by the same age.

“Extreme” calendar congestion is reaching an unsustainable point, according to FIFPRO. Takumi Minamino playing for Japan at the 2024 Asian Cup in Qatar before flying back to Europe to come on as a substitute for French league side AS Monaco less than 24 hours later was cited as an example.

Insufficient recovery time can lead to an increased risk of injury for players – which FIFPRO pointed out can have economic consequences as well as sporting ones – while the travel schedule was also criticized, with leading players racking up tens of thousands of air miles per season, across several different time zones.

Sports scientist Simon Brundish told CNN that players need at least five days of rest in between fixtures, which they simply are not getting. Per FIFPRO, superstar forwards Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe played more than 70% of their matches in the 2022/23 season with less than five days recovery time.

Brundish explained that footballers ideally should play a maximum of 3,800 minutes per season, equivalent to around 42 90-minute games.

He suggested that extending the calendar to allow for more rest or bringing in a sports science-supported hard cap on the amount of minutes that players are allowed to play is possible in theory, but both measures are highly unlikely to be introduced due to logistical and sporting complications.

Conflict between national teams and clubs over minutes could arise, star players could see the field less and league structures would have to change.

“There are too many stakeholders with their own self-interest,” Brundish said.

High-profile players such as Mbappe - pictured here shooting for France at Euro 2024 - are often forced to

There is also concern around the mental health of players. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar took place in the middle of the European club season, rather than in the summer months as is typical. Over 40% of World Cup players surveyed by Football Benchmark said that they experienced extreme or increased mental fatigue after the tournament.

“A failure of governance”

“To listen is to accept your responsibility, and FIFA doesn’t listen…they make unilateral decisions and it is a failure of governance,” said FIFPRO Europe President David Terrier, who described the situation as an “emergency.”

“Unfortunately, the authorities, sometimes even national authorities, have an interesting concept of consultation,” Molango told CNN.

“For us, consultation doesn’t mean; coming up with a crazy idea, informing you about the crazy idea, and after a few complaints saying, ‘well, you know, I’m gonna tweak it and be less crazy, but still crazy, and just crack on.’ That’s not consultation.”

He also pointed towards the fact that league executives and players’ representatives were in the same room, arguing for the same cause at the event.

“The calendar is becoming less harmonious,” added Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters. “In life, if you feel as though you’re listened to, you start to get frustrated. If you’re then still not listened to, you start to get angry … we have not been properly consulted.”

From left to right: Masters, Molango, Tebas, Terrier and AIC president Umberto Calcagno.

When contacted by CNN for a response to the comments made at the event, UEFA said that it “works in cooperation with its stakeholders with regards to formats and has thorough consultation processes in place.”

“Calendar saturation is an issue in modern football, although the distribution of workload is very uneven between leagues and clubs,” it added. “We will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to ensure calendar fairness and players’ welfare.”

Finding a balance

Some argue that soccer players are paid huge salaries – according to Inter Miami part-owner Jorge Mas, Lionel Messi is earning between $50 to 60 million at the club – and that should soften the blow of an increased workload. Brundish was quick to point out that players’ salaries have no impact on what they can take on physically.

Instead, it’s the calendar and consultation process that need to change for those in the game. The idea that players are humans before they are footballers, was promoted at the event.

“We wouldn’t treat racehorses like this,” said renowned soccer journalist Henry Winter at the London event. “If we told racehorses that they would have to race every three days, there would be protests.”

Winter suggested that players could take the unprecedented action of going on strike if the situation does not improve.

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