Sven-Göran Eriksson has blamed fixture congestion--and its twin by-products,
player exhaustion and injuries--for England's failure to progress further at the
World Cup 2002 finals.
is plainly correct. Injuries to key players and dismal
second-half performances from tired players doomed England's efforts in the Far
East. The physical demands of the game at the highest level
are incomparably greater than they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. The
very best footballers simply cannot play two and sometimes three matches per
week, week after week, without breaking down eventually, either through injury
or exhaustion. Player fatigue dramatically increases the risk of injury.
England had to
either do without or settle for sub par performances from their three best
players at the World Cup. Steven Gerrard missed the tournament after
suffering an end-of-season injury. David Beckham played although he was
obviously nowhere near full recovery from his broken foot. Michael Owen
was not fully fit. Several other players were injured or well below form
through tiredness or lack of proper recovery time. Owen himself has said
he and his team-mates were too tired to play well at the tournament.
wags have called these the same old excuses. That does not detract from
their validity. They are the same and old only because fixture congestion and the resulting
player injuries and exhaustion have long been problems and because nothing has
been done to change things.
has long been evident that club demands on players must be alleviated if
England's best talents are to achieve their full potential on the international
stage at the two big tournaments, the World Cup and the European Championship,
which are, by necessity, played at the end of a gruelling season.
are several measures that can be taken, either singly or in combination:
The Premiership should be cut to 18 or even 16 teams, as football's governing
international bodies recommend.
The Premiership clubs should be relieved from entering the League
A winter break of three or four weeks in Premiership play, which would allow
players to recuperate, should be implemented.
will be a huge victory for England's international prospects if any of these are
achieved. There is strong opposition from the clubs and the fans, the
former because their revenues are threatened, the latter because club football
is closest to their hearts.
a century ago, England's first manager, Walter
Winterbottom, struggled with the
top clubs, which controlled the Football Association's International Committee, to achieve the most basic accommodations for the national side--things like
managerial influence in team composition, selection of players based on
merit and team blend rather than on the Committee members' personal preferences, some
stability in team lineups from one match to the next, club readiness to release
players selected for national team duty, the gathering of players a day or two ahead
of time to allow at least some preparation for a match, and preparatory friendly matches against
foreign opponents. These reforms were slow in
coming, but eventually they did come.
explained: "Bit by bit we began to get things accomplished.
... All these things came about in the face of very great
resistance. It always took another defeat to bring about the next slight
improvement." Brian James, England v Scotland, p. 193 (Sportsmans Book
Club edition, Readers Union Limited, London, 1970, originally published by Pelham Books,
lies the rub. An England defeat in the 1950's meant something. It was
another indication that England had lost its footballing pre-eminence, and that
was enough to force recognition of the need for changes and, eventually, the
of the national side today by any of the stronger football nations is accepted
almost as a matter of course, even in the most important competitions.
Defeat by Brazil will provide an honourable way for England to exit the tournament, the
Times of London said, before the quarterfinal meeting at this year's World
Cup. When England did go down to Brazil,
the prevailing sentiment was that they had done quite well, better than
expected, and should be accorded a reception as heroes on their
return from the Far East. Media and fans alike later noted, with inexplicable
satisfaction, that England had once again had the ill fortune to meet and fall
to the tournament's eventual winner. Now that is an old and tired
this reflects a losing mentality, one which infects the English football
community and prevents England from achieving their international potential. This defeatist attitude is the product of
decades of disappointment on the international stage. Its consequence is
fatalistic acceptance that more of the same is all that can be expected.
Calling fixture congestion and the resulting player injuries and exhaustion the
same old excuses is part and parcel of this losing mentality, as if nothing can
or should be done about them. When
defeat is accepted, it is no longer a spur for change.
had the player talent and the resources to win the World Cup this year.
Player injuries and exhaustion precluded them from having a fair shot at
it. The fixture congestion that is the primary cause of player injuries
and exhaustion can be changed.
English football is
in dire need of a winning attitude, the determination to make whatever changes
are necessary for England to take their proper place in world football. It
is time to give England the
boost they need: players fit enough at the end of the season to perform at
their best on the big stage.