x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

No rest for the gifted in the world of football

Worrying trend as top footballers are not getting the summer breaks required to perform at the highest level.

Chelsea’s Spanish midfielder Juan Mata has played more than 70 games this season, and will be in action again over the summer.
Chelsea’s Spanish midfielder Juan Mata has played more than 70 games this season, and will be in action again over the summer.

Every professional footballer needs significant time to rest in the summer, especially those at the highest level. They are not getting it.

Chelsea's Juan Mata has played more than 70 games this season and he still has the Confederations Cup to come, with Spain in Brazil.

He is a great player, and he might be getting away with it now, but players who don't rest suffer from fatigue, they slow and burn out. They start to dislike the best job in the world.

Too many games for young players seriously adversely affects them later. Fernando Torres played too many times. He looks like someone who has completely fallen out of love with football. And didn't Michael Owen say something similar?

The problem for players is that nobody thinks about their long-term future. Managers use their best players continually because they need them.

Their jobs last a year or two; they don't think about what is going to be best for the player in a decade. There are a few former pros who look back with bitter feelings at how they were used.

Money plays a huge part. The Spain players are not happy about friendly games around the world, but they receive a slice of the match fees. They're striking while the iron is hot, but don't expect those players to be at the top of their game in April when the biggest club games come around.

I know, I've been there and seen players lose form because they are physically and mentally drained.

Isn't that what happened to Barcelona recently, when Xavi complained that they hadn't been able to reach their usual "intensity"? I'm not surprised, they must be exhausted.

It is not just about clubs cashing in, but feeling that they have to keep up. Chelsea and Manchester City are both very wealthy, but they played a game in the United States last week because the business arms want to promote their clubs in the United States to attract fans and sponsors.

The players don't like it (not that they would ever say it, publicly), but they are all contracted to go. That added another week or two to the ever-lengthening football season which commenced with pre-season training at the start of July. Some international footballers are now playing football every month of the year.

When I began as a professional, the close season lasted two months. You could switch off and let your body relax after 10 months of playing twice a week and taking trains, planes and automobiles.

You would get through the season on adrenalin, especially if you were playing on a winning team, but along the way your body picked up knocks, your muscles tears. It needs to recover.

Mentally, you need time away from football, too. Time to spend with your family you have not seen enough of for 10 months. I'd go to the Caribbean with them, where it's very laid-back. I'd soon get into that rhythm, switching off, watching the sea and doing very little. I felt reinvigorated after it.

Then I'd take a break with my wife, to New York or somewhere which has nothing to do with football. Then a short holiday with friends, to Spain or Las Vegas. After three holidays in two months I'd be charged up and ready for the new season.

You need that, to see your friends, as opposed to your work friends, to eat food you wouldn't otherwise eat or do things you couldn't otherwise do. I wanted to do a bungee jump. My mates stopped me because they said it was dangerous.

Being dangerous did not stop Roy Keane and Nicky Butt taking a glider ride off a cliff during the season. Butty, Roy and Ryan Giggs and I were sitting by the pool at our hotel in Rio de Janiero for the World Club Championship. They saw the glider fly from a cliff nearby and over the Atlantic Ocean. I realised it was Friday 13th and ducked out. So did Giggsy.

Next thing, we hear these screams. Keane and Butty were up the sky having the time of their lives. We were laughing. The manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had no idea what was going on and he never did find out.

That same manager would give players time off during the season if he felt they were either A: fatigued or B: young and homesick. He was a good judge of knowing when someone needed a rest, even if the players didn't always agree. There should be more managers who do the same.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.