Risking Everything in Soccer’s ‘Red Zone’

It was nearly five years ago, in December 2014, when Arsène Wenger, with that concerned, patrician demeanor of his, first voiced in public his fear that Alexis Sánchez was running the risk of burnout.

Sánchez, a forward, had arrived at Arsenal the previous summer, on the back of not only a demanding season for Barcelona but a draining World Cup: Sánchez had shone as the star of Jorge Sampaoli’s all-action Chile team in Brazil.

He had taken to the Premier League quickly, but Wenger, his manager, worried that his competitive streak, his refusal to countenance the idea of a break and a rest, might come to trouble him. Sánchez, nearing his 26th birthday at the time, was playing in “the red zone,” Wenger said, thanks to his commitments for both club and country.

“Unfortunately,” Wenger said, “you never know how far you can push it.”

In the years that followed, Wenger would issue the same warning half a dozen times. They all went unheeded. Not only did Sánchez refuse to consider the idea of sitting out a game for Arsenal, he never ignored a call from his nation. He came to exist, almost exclusively, in the red zone: winning the Copa América on home soil in 2015, and then again in a special edition in the United States the next summer.

In 2017, he was in Russia for the Confederations Cup. In 2018, now a Manchester United player, he finally had the summer off. It was not one he had planned: Chile, the South American champion, did not qualify for the World Cup.

It would prove a fleeting exception. Despite missing vast stretches of the most recent Premier League season through injury, Sánchez was back at Santiago airport last Saturday, ready for a flight to Brazil. There was another Copa América to play.

There is another one next year, too. Between 2014 and 2020, should Chile qualify for the Qatar World Cup, it is possible that Sanchez will have had just one full summer break.

The same, of course, can be said not only for several of his Chile teammates but for a host of players from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay, all of whom played at the Copas in 2015 and 2016, in the 2018 World Cup, and now have another Copa this year.

Lionel Messi is as good an example as any. As well as playing three full campaigns in La Liga — and regularly reaching the latter stages of the Champions League with Barcelona — Messi reached three major finals with Argentina between 2014 and 2016. He lost them all. That meant a summer off in 2017, but he was in Russia for the World Cup last year, and will lead Argentina over the next month in Brazil.

He has said he wants to lead his nation to a major honor before retiring; given that even he has said Argentina should not be considered a favorite for this year’s Copa, it is likely he will feature again, on home soil, next summer. Should Argentina reach the Confederations Cup in 2021, or should Barcelona be included in FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup the same year, by the time Qatar 2022 rolls around Messi will have had one extended break from soccer in a decade.

Little wonder that César Luis Menotti, the venerable general manager of the Argentine national team, believes Messi is “very tired.” “It scares me that Messi plays,” he said. “I see him emotionally fatigued between the Champions League and the national team. He has a lot of obligations and with a lot of emotional baggage, a lot of responsibilities at his feet.”

The issue of overloading players is not a uniquely South American phenomenon; the demands placed on European and African players seems to be growing exponentially, too.

Europe’s season only officially ended last week, in mid-June, with a set of qualifiers for next year’s European Championships and the final of the inaugural Nations League. Preliminary games for the Champions League start in the last week of June, just as the first African Nations Cup to be held in the (northern hemisphere) summer gets underway.

“We have to start thinking about the players,” Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, warned earlier this season. “If we don’t learn to deal with our players in a better way, competition-wise, then it is the only chance to kill this wonderful game.” He had previously described the Nations League as “the most senseless tournament” in soccer, the equivalent of asking Anthony Joshua, the former world heavyweight champion, to “box every second night.”

FIFPro, the international players’ union, has declared itself “concerned” by the “heavy workload elite players are having to endure to meet mounting club and national team obligations.” Last summer, it warned that 15 players had appeared in club matches less than a month after the end of the World Cup (two of them, Denmark’s Lasse Schone and Serbia’s Dusan Tadic, eventually would reach the Champions League semifinals with Ajax).

FIFPro called then for the “urgent implementation of a mandatory rest period of at least four weeks in the off-season; it contends that FIFA should introduce “global measures to reverse this worrying trend.”

The concern that players are at increased risk for minor and major injuries through overwork is shared by the medical and sports science experts at Europe’s major clubs, who are disproportionately affected by the spiraling demands placed on elite players.

One key figure in a leading Premier League team’s fitness department said the current 12-month calendar will, eventually, “break players,” not simply by increasing the physical demands but the mental strain, too. He used to encourage players to see tournament years as, in effect, “two-year seasons,” but even that no longer applies. There is rarely a break on the horizon; the end of each campaign bleeds seamlessly into the start of the next. Clubs, he said, increasingly assume a couple of weeks’ downtime either side of a tournament is the same as an extended rest.

The blame for that — according to the unions who represent players, the staff members charged with treating them, and the managers who rely on them — lies squarely with the authorities. As Klopp told The Independent last month, the greatest danger to soccer is in its taste for “constantly developing and creating more and more competitions, more and more games.”

Others point out that no organization is willing to bend, prepared to reduce its own demands to help the players: Leagues will not reduce the number of teams in their competitions; national associations protect their domestic cups; UEFA is preparing to increase the size of the Champions League, and FIFA will introduce not only a revamped Club World Cup but an expansion of the World Cup itself.

Currently, the effect is most pronounced in South America, thanks to that run of four Copas in six years as Conmebol, in the most roundabout way possible, seeks to change its calendar so the competition is played parallel with the quadrennial European Championship.

Last month, Colombia’s players’ union released a statement criticizing the body that runs the country’s professional league for its “failure” to protect the “health of our players and the interests of our clubs.” One of Colombia’s biggest clubs, Atlético Junior, claimed that country’s Apertura title on Thursday night, after a two-legged final against Deportivo Pasto, only a day before the Copa Américas opening match. “It is disrespectful to the fans, sponsors and coaches that the best players cannot play in the finals because, owing to the poor organization, they have to be present with their national teams for the Copa América,” the statement said. “This would only happen in Colombia.”

Increasingly, though, that is not true. It happens everywhere, and its effects are everywhere, from the weary sluggishness that characterized the Champions League final to the injury record of a player like the Argentine Ángel Di María. He, too, played in three major tournaments between 2014 and 2016. He picked up an injury in every single one; Real Madrid even wrote to Argentina’s soccer federation to ask that he be left out of the team for the 2014 World Cup final. These are players at breaking point.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sánchez has endured two injury-plagued years, and seemingly been stripped of the spark that once made him so special. Manchester United reportedly is prepared to sacrifice any transfer fee simply to remove him from its wage bill.

Wenger warned that this was coming. His warning was ignored. There was always another game, another competition, another call. Eventually, it caught up with Sánchez. The worry is that there is no reason to believe he is a unique case. Most elite players are asked, now, to exist in the red zone. Too many are never permitted to leave it.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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