Everyone agrees top footballers are playing too many games, except Roger Titford, who can remember when they endured far more without whining. Phil Ball and Neil McCarthy sum up the situation in Spain and France
Once again, the top clubs are calling for a reduction in the number of fixtures. Arsène Wenger (31 players used already this season) is to the fore of the complaints, while Alex Ferguson’s strategy for managing his club’s 60-game workload is plain to see. “The recovery time is too short,” Wenger said after Arsenal’s defeat at Middlesbrough in March, which followed a midweek UEFA Cup match. “It is nonsense to have only two and a half days of preparation.”
They make it sound as though the 60 games a season grind is an unprecedented burden. Far from it. Looking back 20 years we find one of the most tragic cases of fixture overload. Bobby Robson’s brilliant Ipswich Town played 66 games with a group of basically 13 players and almost won a Treble. The majority of these players also played in World Cup qualifiers and Home Internationals.
Ipswich lost just two of the first 32 league games but seven of their last ten, missing the title by only four points. They lost an FA Cup semi-final in extra time but had enough left to win the UEFA Cup after a campaign that took in Prague, Salonika and four other trips. Paul Mariner and Mick Mills were still playing for England in Budapest in June. Thirteen players, sadly, did not a squad make. How Robson could have done with a bit of “rotation” then.
Don Revie’s Leeds had more resources when taking on 120 games over two seasons. Their 1968-69 season began with the 1967-68 Fairs Cup final left over from the previous season and ended 57 games later with the league title. But their 1969-70 campaign (fruitless apart from the Charity Shield) is remembered as the classic fixture congestion story. The league season began on August 9 and fin-ished on April 18, unprecedentedly early, to allow preparation time for the Mexico World Cup. In all, Leeds played 63 games, losing the league title on the run-in, the FA Cup final replay in extra time and the European Cup in the semi-final. Again, most players were also on international duty, though they were excused the Home Internationals.
Heavy seasons do not necessarily equate with failure. Everton, in 1984-85, played 63 games and won the league, the Cup-Winners Cup and the Charity Shield, as well as reaching the FA Cup final. The ultimate schedule that springs to mind is from Wenger’s own club. Arsenal played 70 games in 1979-80, including an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool that went to three replays. The Gunners played in the Charity Shield (lost), reached the FA Cup and Cup-Winners Cup finals (both lost) and the quarter-finals of the League Cup, and finished fourth in the league. Brian Talbot, bless him, didn’t miss a single match.
Despite the complaints of the big clubs, it is often in the lower divisions that clubs really are playing more than they used to. Although they too have fewer FA Cup and League Cup replays to take into account, the introduction of the Auto Windscreens Shield (maximum seven games) and the play-offs mean it is perfectly possible for smaller clubs to play over 60 games a season, as Wigan did last year. While the Latics squad was larger than some, clubs of their size clearly do not have the same resources as Manchester United to cope with such marathons. And had Tranmere won the League Cup, how would they have fitted in the proposed group stages of the UEFA Cup and a 46-match league season next year?
Last season Manchester United won everything but the Charity Shield and the League Cup over 63 games and, if they retain the European Cup this season, will play “only” 62 (including three in Brazil and one in Japan). They will only have 40 domestic games in this mix. Compared with Ipswich’s 13 players of 1980-81, United’s Treble winners fielded 18 men who made a significant contribution in the league last season and several others in the “lesser” competitions.
What has changed most significantly is the number of European games at the expense of domestic fixtures. Sixteen European games a season will soon not be unusual and that, it must be restated, is the choice of the major clubs. For the clinching example, look back on Manchester United’s 1969-70 season, which comprised 57 games, none of them in Europe. At the end of it they had nothing to show except qualification for the Watney Cup.
Quejarse de lujo means to moan about something that you’re actually benefiting from – although it has to be said that up to now, at least, the Spanish have not been at the forefront of the recent spate of whinging about having to play too many games while receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from television to soften the blow.
Between 1995 and 1997 the Primera Liga was extended to 22 teams by dint of a monumental administrative cock-up in which Sevilla’s relegation from the top division to the Segunda B, the equivalent of the Third Division, for failing to present their accounts on time, was waived at the last moment after a wave of righteous indignation from the club.
Despite their obvious guilt, they were spared the chop, while the team chosen to replace them in the Primera Liga, Albacete, threatened legal action if they were not promoted as they had been promised. The all-round compromise meant two years with a top-heavy league structure and 42 games.
There were fears at the time that Spain’s presence in Europe would be weakened by the increased league commitments, and yet the evidence hardly tallies. Atlético Madrid, after doing the double in 1996, did surprisingly well in Europe the next season, and Barcelona won the Cup-Winners Cup in 1997. Real Madrid may well point to the fact that they finally won the European crown again in the season when the league reverted to 20, but others would stress the lack of decent opposition that year.
Whatever the case, it seems doubtful that a glut of games is really harmful to the clubs at the top of any of the European leagues. Manchester United’s Treble will take some repeating, but in many ways it represented the flowering of the squad principle. In Spain, the big two have not been as canny as Alex Ferguson with even larger squads, but have nevertheless been perfectly able to give their stars a break when necessary.
Teams involved in Europe are spared the trouble of competing in the King’s Cup until the last 16. Even then, they are seeded to avoid each other until the semis, and send out sides that are not strictly top-notch, a custom so woven into football culture here that it is hardly questioned.
The big boys also have the excuse that the cup competition is a two-legged affair until the final, meaning that if a team half-filled with reserves wins the away leg, they can put out a team entirely drawn from the lower ranks for the second. The first game is always played at the smaller team’s ground, so that if they are thrashed they at least pull in some home revenue – one of the last gestures of benevolence to the smaller fry anywhere in Europe.
The talk of reducing the top division to 18 clubs represents the usual unthinking top-down philosophy practised in European football. A reduced top division benefits no one, because it unbalances the leagues below, further restricts entry to the elite, concentrates all the money where it is least needed, and will reduce the value, in the long-term, of the inevitable series of Manchester United v Bayern Munich finals to come.
In Spain, a top flight of 20 has not compromised in any way the ability of a number of sides to prosper in Europe – even those without the huge squads of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Celta de Vigo were probably the best side to watch in European competition last season. Mallorca did well too, reaching the final of the Cup-Winners Cup in their first European campaign, and Valencia have got to the last eight of the Champions League this year along with the big two. Celta and Mallorca are into the UEFA Cup quarter-finals and Deportivo made no excuses about pressure at the top of the league when they lost out to Arsenal. Athletic Bilbao even made the Champions League in 1998 on a tiny local squad and acquitted themselves reasonably well.
If they really want to cut the number of games, of course, they could always bring back a pure knock-out competition and call it the European Cup. Dream on.
In France the question of whether footballers play too much has coincided neatly with the government’s plans to introduce a 35-hour week. The idea is to increase employment by giving everyone the equivalent of an extra day off every two weeks. There are obvious similarities with the “rotation system” which is increasingly common at larger football clubs, not least because many workers are not that keen on the way the shorter week is being implemented. I suppose, like footballers, they prefer to keep their place in the team, rack up the related bonuses and to hell with more employment for fellow professionals and the benefits of increased leisure time.
With Champions League commitments, Bordeaux and Marseille have both dropped players for what are considered less important matches. Marseille have used 32 players already this season, although the figure is exaggerated by a change in manager, a haemorrhage of players over Christmas and the signing of cup-tied replacements. Obviously, some turnover is also due to more mundane factors such as injuries and suspensions, but it is now generally accepted that French clubs need bigger and better squads in order to compete in Europe.
Players, confusingly, say they are against the rotation system, but are also upset about playing too many matches. Polled by France Football, 18 of the 22 players in France’s 1998 World Cup squad said they played too much football (only Vincent Candela said he didn’t mind; Fabien Barthez, David Trezeguet and Christian Karembeu were undecided). Emmanuel Petit complained that “here in England we play ten more games than any other country in the world” and launched an attack on the “stupid” British tradition of playing football at Christmas.
All nonsense, of course, as Karembeu pointed out in the same poll: “South Americans play a lot of matches. Much more than we do in Europe.” In reality, English clubs only play four more league games than their French counterparts and potentially the same number in the cups (unless of course they have to play a cup game again because one of their team-mates was a bad sport).
In theory, a French international playing for a French club could play 77 games this season, although his team would need to get to the final of the French Cup, the League Cup and the Champions League, and France would have to get to the final of Euro 2000. It’s improbable, but not so far off the recent record of 66 matches played by Stéphane Guivarc’h in the 1997-98 season for Auxerre and France. He blamed that gruelling season for his injury during the World Cup and his failure to impress at Newcastle.
Auxerre’s coach Guy Roux, asked in another France Football interview about the same subject, replied: “Today’s players try to convince us they are overworked. One of them in particular, in fact, a player who only made 34 appearances in England last year because he was so often injured or suspended [Petit again].” He went on to point out that “in the early 1970s Beckenbauer and Bayern played 70 games every season”.
It’s hard to imagine international players actually working seven hours a day, five days a week for the company that employs them – their club – as the rest of France’s workers are being asked to. For a start, they spend too much time doing interviews for the non-sport related media, appearing at celebrity dos and performing in adverts for shampoo and biscuits.
As Guy Roux suggests, players in top European clubs actually play less now than they did 30 years ago. What has changed is the “work” they do outside football. Emmanuel Petit and his mates may complain about being overworked, but they won’t find much sympathy for that view in France outside the national team’s dressing room.
From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month