It's time for FIFA to fix the international calendar and reduce player fatigue
Every year it hits you like the ultimate buzzkill: The new club season begins, you're all excited, the air of possibility hangs in the air, you play the first few games ... and then it all shuts down.
No matter. We get started again, everything is great for another five weeks or so ... and then it all grinds to a halt again. Another international break, this one in October.
Another four weeks of football and it's time to shut it down once more. Here comes the November international break.
Eighteen months ago, I wrote how football would be better off having a separate "season" (two of them, actually) just for internationals. Several people -- the very people whose job it is to work out fixture lists and match calendars -- reached out to tell me just why it was pie-in-the-sky stuff. They'd had some of the same ideas too; the proposals had been out there for some time. But it could not be done. Climate in some parts of the world (too hot, too cold or too rainy) made it unworkable. And getting around in some confederations is simply very difficult to the point that playing two matches a week, alternating home and away, for five weeks or so would be a major headache for both players and fans.
I was encouraged, though. There are people thinking about this, and they are taking steps in the right direction.
You might have heard how earlier this year, FIFA's stakeholder committee made a number of proposals to reform the transfer system, mostly to do with agents and compensation for clubs. One of the issues that was raised -- and that will hopefully be raised again -- is that of the international calendar.
In the 2018-19 season, there are five international breaks: September, October, November, March and early June (the latter coming when most leagues are over). During these breaks, it's mandatory for clubs to release players by Monday morning at the latest. The players are released back from their national teams the Wednesday morning of the following week. (Clubs also will have to release players from January to Feb. 1, 2019 for the Asian Cup as well as, in the summer of 2019, for the African Cup of Nations and Copa America.)
The impact this has on players is pretty obvious.
Take Michael Olunga, a Kenyan striker who plays for Kashiwa Reysol in Japan's J-League. He played on Saturday and had to get himself to Ethiopia for his country's match -- a crucial Cup of Nations qualifier -- by Wednesday. The earliest he could have arrived in Addis Ababa was Monday morning and that's assuming Kashiwa let him go after their match on Saturday; technically, they could have forced him to stick around until Monday. That means he arrived after a 16½-hour flight -- and a six-hour time difference -- and stepped on to the pitch for a key game 48 hours later. It doesn't take a genius to figure out those aren't ideal conditions. (Still, Olunga came close to scoring as Ethiopia and Kenya battled to a 0-0 draw).
One of the proposals is a baby step in the right direction. Instead of three international breaks in the European autumn, have two. Just make them a little bit longer and play three matches instead of two. The downside is that some teams would get players back on a Saturday, but that's fine. You would go two consecutive weekends without league football twice a season, but you'd be getting rid of one break (and getting one weekend back), so you'd only have to extend the season by one week (or add a midweek round).
It's baby steps, I know, but it would be a start. It would be less disruptive to clubs and you'd help the national sides too, who would have more time together and more continuity.
It's not perfect. If you want to talk perfect, you'd cut each top-flight league down to 18 clubs, thereby eliminating four games from the season. (Heck, you could even go down to 16.) Too many fixtures means more risk of injury, more tired legs and less quality on the pitch.
This would never happen because, as the saying goes, turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Clubs aren't going to give up matches that equal revenue. So maybe instead of limiting matches, you limit players. It's an argument that FIFPro, the players' union, has made time and again.
For example, Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard both played 64 games in the 12 months leading up to the start of this season. Nearly a quarter of the footballers surveyed by FIFPro said they played more than 50 games. What if you reached a compromise? Say, 55 games for outfield players and 60 for keepers?
(You'd "start the clock" in, say, January so that if Messi has to miss games, it won't be in the latter stages of the Champions League and, of course, you'd need find a way to split the allocation between club and country. But that's doable, with a bit of goodwill.)
These are just ideas, but they are ideas that are being talked about by people who make decisions. And that matters.
It's 2018. Football is still operating along many of the same standards that applied 20 or 30 years ago, when it was an entirely different game. Balancing health, entertainment and revenue is tricky, but there's an openness to change that simply wasn't there before.
Cutting one of the autumn breaks is a tiny step, but it's one of the more imminently viable ones out there right now. Is it enough? No. But perfect is the enemy of good. And you have to start somewhere.