Trials of football season, after World Cup

August 04, 2018 07:08 pm | Updated August 05, 2018 06:29 pm IST

France's Antoine Griezmann holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup as France played Croatia, at Luzhniki Stadium, in Moscow, Russia.

France's Antoine Griezmann holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup as France played Croatia, at Luzhniki Stadium, in Moscow, Russia.

What is it?

June and July are generally periods of football limbo. But in a World Cup year, there is no respite. As the club campaigns wind down worldwide, the mammoth tournament takes centre stage, eating up all the time that was left in the name of off-season. This isn’t to undermine its importance, for it remains the most coveted trophy in all sport, but only to lay bare the ways in which the extravaganza throws out of gear most clubs’ preparations for the upcoming season. The year 2018 has been no different, with teams scrambling to find match-fit players with the Premier League in England and Ligue 1 in France starting next week, closely followed by Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga.

How did it come about?

The football calendar is bursting at its seams. If a player in any of the five leagues plays for one of the top sides, he is expected to feature in a minimum of three competitions – the domestic league, the domestic cup and a European event — all running concurrently over 10 months. A quadrennial tournament like the World Cup or the European Championship or the Copa America takes up the 11th month. In the 30 days that’s left, lucrative tours to Asia and the Americas are shoehorned to expand the global footprint of big European clubs. In this, the Premier League appears the hardest hit, as it was home to 45% of the players who featured in the two World Cup semifinals — Belgium vs. France and Croatia vs. England. Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United sent 16, 12 and 11 players respectively to Russia and all three teams are in the U.S. for their warm-ups without a single one of them.

How does it matter?

Fully rested and rejuvenated players have been the cornerstones of most teams’ successes. For example, a rousing start for Manchester City last time meant it had practically sewed up the title race by Christmas. Without proper recovery, it is tough to envisage such a situation. Then, for the likes of Maurizio Sarri, the new Chelsea manager, Pep Guardiola, City’s boss, and Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham, all of whom believe in drilling their players during training sessions rather than match-day environments, the reduced time hurts. The closing of the English transfer window three weeks sooner than usual (August 9 against August 31) has only exacerbated their plights, as they cannot seek sufficient reinforcements in time. This is also an era in which the high-pressing, albeit physically demanding, football is in vogue. England striker Harry Kane, who plays a similar style under Pochettino, seemed tired to even finish the World Cup and there have been calls for him to be given an extended time off. On the other hand, Alexis Sanchez, the irrepressible Chilean dynamite, who had his first summer off in five years, has looked the sharpest for Manchester United ahead of the new season.

What next?

Guardiola may have put up a brave face and said, “We are happy to have 16 players out, the most, and that’s a good sign for the club,” but a more humane schedule will be welcomed by all. Even Jose Mourinho, a manager who chides his players for not being “man enough” feels, “three weeks [off] is the minimum that the body and soul needs, to return and think about football again.” The players union FIFPRO has been the most vocal, demanding a minimum of four weeks’ rest between the last game of the season and the start of the next pre-season. Astonishingly, this year, there will just be 26 days between the World Cup final and the first day of the Premier League. Similar to the rest of Europe, there is talk of a winter break being introduced in England, starting 2019-20. The sooner the better.

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