The Rising Volume of Games Per Year and the Correlation with Increasing Injuries to Football/Soccer Players
The average career-span of an ‘elite player’ (i.e. one who plays in the top global divisions) is difficult to measure but is estimated to be around eight years, with a peak performance occurring at around the ages of 24 to 28, although once again, this varies on a case-by-case basis. However, in reality this estimation seems distorted as it seems to only account for a select, exclusive demographic of football players. For many hoping to make it into the classification of an ‘elite’ player, their careers are often tainted by a variety of factors.
In this blog, we will assess an interesting pattern that seems to be emerging in modern football; a distinct correlation between the increasing volume of games that a player will play each year and the frequency with which injuries, often of increased severity, are occuring. Perhaps this would be best explained within a lengthy scientific study detailing the exact data and figures behind the theory but for now, we will attempt to outline the general overview of what seems to be happening and the effect on both youth football and the top level of the game.
Youth Football and Injuries
The frank reality of the cutthroat business of youth football is that many young stars who demonstrate high potential during their youth development, will ultimately fail to succeed at the top level. One of the biggest causes of this is injuries. Many youth players are unfortunate enough to suffer from injury problems throughout their development and physical growth, which ultimately prevents them from fulfilling their potential.
Youth football is an intense environment and most of these youngsters have a lot of pressure put upon them to perform and to earn themselves an opportunity as a professional footballer. As with almost any physically active adolescent, growing pains can be a big hindrance. However, youth footballers are often fearful of showing weakness and asking to rest as it may tarnish the opinion of their coach and damage their chances of success in the academy system. Hence, many players will battle through and continue to play despite muscle growth problems. This can worsen the issue and many youth players lack an understanding of their body and its maturation processes, eventually creating a worse outcome and long-term ‘niggles’ or injuries.
It is also not too uncommon for youth players to suffer serious injuries that are always a risk from playing football and which I will explore in the next chapter. When considering how and why injuries are affecting those at the top, it is also important to remember that a lot of the general themes, injuries and issues, are replicated in youth football just as much.
Injuries and Causes
There are plenty of examples of what would be considered ‘typical’ injuries for footballers; Anterior Cruciate Ligament ruptures perhaps being the most infamous, as well as broken legs or ankles, and other common injuries that rule players out for shorter periods such as muscle tears, strains, or ‘pulls’ in calves, thighs, hamstrings, groins, achilles and sometimes even upper body parts.
Our view is that these are becoming more frequent problems for football players and we believe that the simple explanation as to why is that the rising number of games and intensity of training that these players are now demanded to participate in, increases the risk posed by injury.
In every competition in global football, there seems to be a reality that the number of games per year is increasing. For example, some leagues require teams to play on a Saturday and then a Tuesday almost every week. In other cases, one league may play once a week but then the teams will also participate in a cup competition which is played during the midweek. It is also important to remember that usually half of these fixtures are ‘away’ from home, and will involve a lot of travelling and mental or physical exertion.
This places a heavy demand on not only the player’s mentality, but also, physically and their body is required to perform at an optimum level with insufficient recovery time. Fitness and conditioning can only go so far. These players, although some may seem it, are not superhumans and their muscles, joints, brains, bones and ligaments are subject to intense demands which can lead to injury.
The evidence of this rise is demonstrated when we consider how many games some global superstars have played over the last few years. In the 2016-17 season, Bernardo Silva and Joao Moutinho played a total of 67 games for club and country (both Portugal). In 2020-21, Bruno Fernandes played 73 games and was closely followed by Mason Mount with 69, several of which went to extra time in cup competitions. In the same year, the 18-year-old Pedri, exemplified the issue. Having featured for Barcelona in Spanish domestic competitions and the Champions League, he then represented his country Spain at the 2020 Euros, and then again at the Tokyo Olympics, amassing 73 games to equal Fernandes’ record. It was little surprise to see that Pedri was then forced to miss the beginning of the 2021-22 season with a thigh muscle injury having had almost no time off from football before the season began.
These top clubs have access to the highest standard of medical care, employ teams of doctors and physios and have scientific knowledge and studies behind them to ensure they give their players the best chance of staying healthy. However, for teams that may play 4 times in 9 days during the Christmas period or perhaps in London on a Sunday, Munich on a Wednesday and Newcastle on the next Saturday, it has to be impossible for players to be 100% fit. There is an expectation on the modern footballer that they will be able to ‘play through’ knocks and niggles although this leads them vulnerable to worsening the problem and being sidelined for a significant period of time, perhaps during the so-called ‘peak’ years of their career.
All things considered, it is extraordinary that someone like Lionel Messi has averaged 51 club appearances every season between 2008 and the present day at Barcelona previously and now Paris Saint Germain. Not only is the number of games impressive but also to have performed at a ‘world-best standard’, collecting seven Ballon d’Or awards during this time, makes the feat even more remarkable. On top of the club appearances, he has also been the ‘main man’ for his country, recently winning the World Cup and has dealt with the excessive pressure incredibly well.
Not everyone is as fortunate as to be so injury free and consistent in their performances. For every player who enjoys a lengthy career at the top of their game, there are hundreds that fall short due to repetitive injury problems and being unable to return to their best following severe injuries, surgeries and other complications.
One topic which is widely spoken about in modern football and modern sport in general and is worth mentioning here, is the risk of head injuries such as concussion that can impact the later life of a player. For example, referees are now required to immediately stop play if they believe a head injury has occurred as it is not unheard of for severe concussions to have immediate disastrous effects on a player.
Head collisions are commonplace in football and even heading a ball has been scrutinised by football’s governing bodies with an increasing sensitivity towards the health and wellbeing of the players. At grassroots level, there have even been trials of new rules which forbid the heading of a ball as it has been scientifically linked with brain deterioration in later life for individuals who played a lot of football.
Whilst this may be an unrealistic and drastic change to football, there is still plenty to be done to mitigate against the extent of head injuries and concussions in football, as well as the other physical injuries mentioned in the previous section.
The world of football is known for its cutthroat and brutal nature. However, despite the financial status, commercial attraction and ever-increasing popularity of the sport, there are issues within the game that are causing a rise in the frequency of injuries to players. It is important to remember that the players are a key component of the success of the sport of football and their health, wellbeing and safety should be considered in the highest regard.