Can AI offer protection that the game’s custodians cannot?

...

FIFA’s ambition to play a World Cup every two years seems on an inexorable path to completion.

From a position of opposition when he was a coach, Arsene Wenger is now FIFA’s ambassador for such a plan. He has laid out what the football calendar could look like, including months dedicated solely to international matches, either qualifiers for continental tournaments or for the World Cup itself.

At the moment there are two-week international breaks in September, October and November, then March, and finally June at the end of the season. That is in effect five separate occasions encompassing 10 weeks where a player is the responsibility of his national team rather than his club side.

By ringfencing the months of October and March purely for international matches, it means that all tournament qualification can be wrapped up and therefore free up additional dates for matches within the season. That’s where the potential benefits begin and end, however, in a plan which threatens to burden exhausted footballers even more than the current set-up.

In December, FIFA will ask its members to vote, and most of Africa have already endorsed Gianni Infantino’s concept, as have Concacaf and Asia, and agree with his reasoning.

Infantino said: “We want to adopt a holistic approach with a global approach to this project. FIFA has one event that lasts one month every four years that is helping to develop football in 211 member associations and the other FIFA competitions.

“The new FIFA is open for this type of dialogue as we strive to find the best possible solution for women’s, men’s and youth football going forward, both in terms of international match calendar and final tournaments reform.”

The reality is that in three of the four years in which there is no World Cup hosted, FIFA’s ability to generate revenue is miniscule in comparison to tournament years. For example in hosting the 2018 World Cup, they generated $4.5 Billion, but in 2017 that number was a modest $734m. You can see the bind they are in, and Infantino can dress it up as ‘expanding the game’ all he wants, but if you’ve got a tournament where you can guarantee billions of revenue simply by hosting it then eventually it’s going to happen as often as it will be allowed.

But the biggest problem comes from the lack of compliance from UEFA and CONMEBOL, who have, by far, the most successful tournaments of the confederations and don’t want their events to decrease in relevance in the non-World Cup years. UEFA and CONMEBOL have also recently agreed to an inter-continental event between Italy and Argentina, their two tournament winners, to strengthen their relationship.

And this ongoing battle, despite protestations from the likes of FIFPro, will only lead to one thing – more games. More stress for players. More intensity, more of the time. More is the operative word.

As Zone7 highlighted when we assessed the impact of the congested match period in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, injury risk increases significantly when more than six matches are played in a period of 30 days.

Football is in danger of making six matches in a month seem like a relative novelty for high-performing players, therefore noticeably increasing the risk of injury on a consistent basis.

If FIFA gets its wish, we could be looking at a World Cup every two years onwards from 2026, with the European Championship and Copa America (and other confederation-specific events) in between. In effect the calendar could look like this:

How the football calendar could look from 2026 onwards…

Effectively, a player featuring for a successful national team as well as club – the highest echelon of talent – could participate in seven games in the World Cup if they reach the final, taking them through nearly two weeks of July.

Their club season would then start in August, allowing for a short break before pre-season begins. A 38-game league season awaits them, existing alongside the revamped Champions League, which has 10 group stage games, meaning a team reaching the final will be required to play 17 matches.

Success in the domestic cup competition could add as many as another seven games to the mix, while the international breaks, though it’s unclear at the moment which format they will take, have the potential to add another 7-10 games. And then you round off your season with another gruelling confederation tournament, such as the European Championship.

a breakdown of the potential number of games for an international footballer…

So a player who enjoys a phenomenally successful campaign for both club and country has the potential to play almost 80 games across a 12 month period. And that’s before we take into account pre-season friendlies and tournaments that so many of the big teams take part in now to expand their reach and brand awareness.

It’s a gigantic number of games and has a feeling of unsustainability. Football now is not like football even 10 years ago. According to recent studies, high-intensity running has increased up to 40% in this decade alone, while the number of sprints a player undertakes has increased too – depending on your position, anywhere up to 100% more than the decade prior. Players are fitter, are being subjected to more intense games, and yet we’re still asking them to play more than ever before.

Just look at the example of Alexis Sanchez. Between 2013 and 2017, the Chilean played a huge 66 games for his national team, including in back-to-back Copas America in 2015 and 2016 – tournaments his nation won. That means from the beginning of 2014 until the end of 2017, Sanchez literally did not have a break. And is it reflected in the fact that, at the age of 29, Sanchez joined Manchester United in 2018 and already appeared completely and utterly burned out. Now 32, he barely plays for Inter. Is this the kind of physical breakdown we are creating for all top-class players?

With FIFA, UEFA and other governing bodies battling with domestic leagues for a slice of the revenue, and with no overarching strategy deciding who plays when, it’s unlikely that the number of matches a professional faces in a given season is likely to significantly decrease. And so, to avoid injury, it will take Artificial Intelligence to step in and provide footballers the level of protection the game’s custodians cannot.