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Too many games, too little time, and Qatar itself: Why this World Cup is littered with injuries

As the knockouts of the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar begin, we look at the persistent injury issues players have faced over the tournament and its lead-up

South Korea's Lee Jae-sung sustains an injury as Portugal's Joao Cancelo looks on.South Korea's Lee Jae-sung sustains an injury as Portugal's Joao Cancelo looks on during the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar. (Photo via REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Footballers get injured. This is nothing new. But the 2022 World Cup in Qatar seems to be littered with injuries with almost no team escaping. From the lead-up to the tournament, injuries have been one of the major topics of discussion among football fans. There are various theories about the abnormally high injury rate.

A packed schedule and tired players

Modern footballers play a lot of games — as many as four club competitions plus national commitments. As football breaks advertisement and viewership records, with more games bringing more money, the calendar has been getting more and more crowded. Even with advances in sports science and the understanding of players’ physiology, the packed schedule is leaving less and less time for rest and recovery.

Rest and recovery are crucial for a player’s health. The physical demands of modern football at the highest level extract a heavy toll on the body. Muscle and mental fatigue aside, players also face repeated hard contact over the course of a game. Recovery takes time — which is precisely what is not available.

For instance, in the 2021 season, Spanish midfielder Pedri played in 70 official games for his club Barcelona and Spain. That amounts to more than a game every week, around the year. If one takes into account the fact that the actual football season stretches just over nine months, that number is closer to two games a week. While at 18, Pedri’s youth has allowed him to stay fit despite the immense burden, the games add up over a footballing career.

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Ask Wayne Rooney, who burst onto the scene when he was 16 but was gassed by the time he was 29. He played all sorts of physically demanding positions, including as central midfielder and left back, and through niggles and strains. Today, at age 37, he looks like a grizzled war veteran with his playing days far behind.

Qatar and its unique schedule

Not only are players playing a lot, but this year’s World Cup has disrupted the normal schedule of footballers. Being held in the middle of the footballing season, it has caused extra strain on already tired players. The World Cup itself adds games to a player’s calendar. On top of that, since the world has had to make time for this poorly scheduled tournament, the rest of the calendar has also been compressed. This means that players have had to play more games in a scrunched window before the World Cup, with another coming afterwards.

Apart from the sheer number of games, the disrupted routines are bad for players’ health. While volume adds to the physical burden, the lack of a fixed routine hampers the process of recovery. As they have to constantly travel with games coming at irregular intervals (rather than the standard weekend fixture list), the players are forced to adjust their own regimes rather than have a set routine.

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Qatar’s heat is not helpful

The reason why Qatar’s World Cup was scheduled in the winter is that it is simply too hot to play in the desert country during the summer, when World Cups are traditionally held. In 2010, when Qatar (dubiously) won the hosting bid, they had made grand promises about constructing air-conditioned stadia and fully shielding fans and footballers from the heat.

However, as time passed, Fifa realised that this was a pipe dream. The energy and infrastructure that would be required to fully air-conditioned stadiums would be cost-prohibitive, both economically and environmentally. Further, it is not as if the whole country could be air-conditioned. In 50-degree summer heat, fans fainting in the streets due to heatstroke would be a PR disaster for Fifa. There was no option but to shift the World Cup to the winter, at the cost of disruption.

But winter too in Qatar is unlike winter in many other countries. Days are still very hot. At the beginning of the tournament, training sessions had to be cancelled due to just how hot it was. Heat tires players out quicker, especially players from Europe and the parts of America that seldom see such weather. Tired players suffer more injuries.

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Fifpro weighs in

The international players’ union expressed much concern even before the start of the tournament. “I think the risk (of injury) is higher as is the risk of fatigue over the next four weeks… That is what the science says,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, Fifpro’s general secretary.

Darren Burgess, a consultant with Fifpro and a former director of high performance at Arsenal, told The Guardian that the tournament had a greater number of absentees from soft-tissue injuries thanks to insufficient recovery time. He also said there was a “really high risk” of injury in Qatar not only for players who have played a lot of games but also for those – such as Kyle Walker or Harry Maguire – who lack match fitness or are “underloaded”.

A dangerous Beautiful Game

World football is playing a dangerous game when it keeps adding more matches on the plates of exhausted players. While more games bring in more money, over time, commercial interests directly impede players’ health. As we see an ever-increasing number of injuries in football, high-profile players are missing big games and tournaments. And over time, when fans are deprived of the best talent due to fitness issues, they are likely to invest less time and money in the game.

For sports administrators and organisers notoriously driven by the greed for ever-growing revenues, there could come a time when they might run their golden geese to death, killing the very product that makes them money. A poll has found that Neymar’s injury in the first game of the group stages impacted the interest of fans in watching Brazil.

Some high-profile injuries over the course of the Fifa World Cup 2022

This is a list of high-profile players to get injured before or during the World Cup, affecting their participation in their tournament. This is not an exhaustive list with many other players having suffered both major and minor injuries.

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  • Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), hamstring
  • Neymar (Brazil), ankle
  • Reese James (England), knee
  • Ben Chilwell (England), hamstring
  • N’golo Kante (France), hamstring
  • Paul Pogba (France), leg
  • Karim Benzema (France), thigh
  • Lucas Hernandez (France), knee
  • Timo Werner (Germany), foot
  • Giorgino Wijnaldum (the Netherlands), leg
  • Diego Jota (Portugal), calf
  • Sadio Mané (Senegal), tibia

First published on: 04-12-2022 at 16:24 IST
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