Injured, Stressed, Depressed and Broke

The evidence continues to pile up: The football season is too long. Games are getting more intensive than ever and footballers are the victims

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A top football club will play 36 to 38 league games per season. It will also play a few rounds in the national cup, a few rounds in the league cup and probably take part in one of Uefa’s tournaments – 8 games or more. A top team will play between 50 to 60 official games. Add 5 to 10 friendly matches.

A player will play between 40 to 60 games per season for his club. He’ll take tens of flights and train 5 to 7 times a week. To this workload, add 8 to 12 international games, training with the national team and other commercial and sporting obligations.

On average, a top player will play every 4.5 days.  Between 5,000 and 6,000 minutes. For comparison , a NBA player will play between 2,000 and 3,500 in a season.

It’s no coincidence then that many big time players are injured in the last weeks of the season. Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Eden Hazard, Van Persie, Rooney, Mesut Özil, Yaya Toure, Diego Costa and more. It’s like going into the NBA playoffs without injured Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah.

Like Running 7 Marathons in One Year

Calculations suggest that effort wise (burning of calories and other physiological factors) a 90-minute football match is equal in effort to running a half-marathon.  According to that matrix, footballers “run” about 40 to 60 half marathons per season. Running experts suggest it’s not healthy for a human to 10 half-marathons in one year. So, footballers run 4 to 6 times more than what physicians regard as dangerous for humans.

According to further research, a footballer runs at least 300 kilometers per season. That’s like running about 7 marathons. Some midfielders run more than 360 kilometers per season, which are 8.5 marathons. According to top cardiologists, runners should do “just one or a few” marathons or full-distance triathlons. Their conclusion is that “over-exerting the heart for years can lead to long-term damage.”

For comparison, basketball players run between 100 to 200 kilometers per season, American football players run about 30km per season and tennis players run between 100 to 200km per season. By the way, per game, Australian rules football players run the most  - about 14 kilometers per game. However, they play less than 25 games per season.

It’s no surprise then that according to research by R. D. Hawkins and C. W. Fuller overall level of injury to professional footballers is around 1000 times higher than that found in other traditionally high risk industrial occupations generally regarded as high risk. 67% of all injuries occurred during competition. The overall injury frequency rate (IFR) was 8.5 injuries/1000 hours, with the IFR during competitions (27.7) being significantly higher than that during training (3.5). Most injuries, 58%, do not occur because of contact between players.

A Swedish 11-year study shows fixture congestion was associated with increased injury rates that’s despite the fact that medical technology and training regimes are better than ever. According to the study, the nature of injuries has changed. There are less tendons and ligaments injuries but more muscular and skeletal injuries. Conditions associated with intense physical pressure, such as  inflammations, have also become a lot more frequent. Almost all players take time off because of injury during the season. Almost all players play through pain.

The simple math is that more games equal more injuries.  Players are suffering from erosion, grinding, exhaustion and fatigue. Classic wear and tear.


No Time to Recover 

It’s going to get much worse before it’s going to get better. Games are getting more intensive than ever. In 2006-07 the average number of sprints per team in a Premier League match was 330.2. This season Prozone’s data show that it is 431.1, a 30.6% increase. The recovery time between high intensity sprints has dropped from 54.6 seconds to 43.5 seconds, a decline of 20%. Footballers run more and have less time to recover.

Many physicians believe there’s just too much football in one season. “60 games per season are too many games”, says Dr. Stephen Ben-Shoshan is a Senior muskulo-skeletal interventional radiologist, CT & MRI musculo – skeletal imaging diagnostic. “The human body can’t handle that pressure. I see many feet and legs problems in marathon runners and many problems caused by trauma in Rugby. However, footballers seem to suffer from both problems. Traumas and erosion. Footballers are damaged like marathon running Rugby players. For them, at a young age at least, it doesn’t matter. They want to play as many games as possible. I, as a sports physician, need to fix them for the short term but I know the damage is long term”. Ben-shoshan, who works for PSG, adds: “I think that players can’t play more than 20-30 games per season and stay healthy”.

This overload could be plain lethal. ”Scientific research shows that an average of between 0.6 and 3.6 players per 100,000 athletes between the ages of 12 and 35 die from a sudden heart attack. That percentage is higher among footballers.” says FIFPro’s chief medical officer Vincent Gouttebarge.

The number of games is an economical issue. Every game is worth millions for television, sponsors and club owners. More games equal more money. Players are well aware of the financial importance of each and every game. This mental and emotional pressure takes its toll as well.

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Footballers are More Depressed than Soldiers

One in four professional footballers (more than 25%) said they suffer symptoms of anxiety and depression. That’s according to a new study for the players’ union, FIFPro. The problem was even worse among retired players with 39% saying they were affected by depression and anxiety.

To put that into some sort of perspective, the last survey of UK Armed Forces personal said that 19.7% of of the Armed Forces suffered mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. While a US study showed that 18% of nurses experienced depressive symptoms.

“Mental illness seems to occur among former professional footballers more often than in current players, and more often than in other populations. Consequently, mental illness among former professional footballers cannot be underestimated and should be a subject of interest for all stakeholders in football,” said Vincent Gouttebarge who conducted the research. ”You have to find a new life,” he said. “It can put you under a lot of stress.”

15% of former players showed signs of burnout and 18% were found to be in distress. Long-term injuries and surgeries that take players out of the game and away from close, regular contact with teammates can also be factors in mental health problems. Being forced to stop playing professionally because of injury or because clubs won’t offer another contract can be particularly hard to cope with.

Footballers, who are unable to save money, are more professional than ever. However, they are stressed, overworked and leave the game depressed and broke. Not all their problems can be solved. However, the mad workload must be cut down.

If the NFL  is a 16 games league and it’s the richest professional league in the world (and the NFL players have been recognized as victims of a system that abused their health for the sake of money), so yeah, football calender can and should be shorten as well.

Maybe rules should change (unlimited substitutions? ), maybe “league cups” and 2nd legs can be scrapped. Maybe number of teams in leagues should be reduced. Whatever… Something must be done to ease the workload during the football season. For the sake of footballers.


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