Football never stops and that’s not a bad thing, but it could be better

I told a lie on “The Gab & Juls Podcast” on Monday when I said that Sunday’s UEFA Nations League final — with Spain beating Croatia on penalties — symbolically wrapped up the 2022-23 European season. Of course, it does no such thing, of course, because there was more international football on Monday and Tuesday, qualifying games for Euro 2024, in fact.

If that’s your symbolic end to 2022-23, enjoy your time off. You get a whole seven days until the 2023-24 season begins with the Champions League preliminary round. (And this one’s a doozy: a Final Four-style tournament in Iceland between Atletic Club D’Escaldes from Andorra, Tre Penne from San Marino, Breidablik from Iceland and Buducnost from Montenegro.)

A seven-day break for the fan … only it’s not really a break. If you’re a fanatic like me, you’ll be watching the football they’ve wedged in between, such as the European Under-21 championship, which kicked off Wednesday in Romania and Georgia. (Lois Openda, Ryan Gravenberch, Mykhaylo Mudryk, Jacob Ramsey, Amine Gouiri, Elye Wahi, Sandro Tonali … sign me up!)

If it feels like too much football, that’s because it is. Or, rather, it’s too much in the way trying to watch an entire streaming catalog is too much. You’ll get fatigued, you’ll lose interest, and a lot of what you watch will be boring, repetitive and irrelevant to your interests.

But guess what? It’s OK, because for much of the audience, the consumption of football has become like the consumption of streaming TV. You’ll have your favorites; some will be genuinely huge, popular culture-defining shows, and some will be more niche pleasures — I assume somebody out there is watching “Selling Sunset,” otherwise they wouldn’t have made six seasons of it — in the same way some people support Real Madrid or Manchester United, while others support Elche and Sassuolo.

Then there will be the really big shows that you may or may not be emotionally invested in, but you watch anyway because everybody is talking about them. Those are the equivalent of “Squid Game” or “Stranger Things” or, back in the day, “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.” That’ll be your Champions League knockout stages, your title deciders in the top European leagues, World Cups and Euros … and not much else.

There’s something for everyone. That’s why I’m not concerned about “too much football” from a fan’s perspective. It would be like saying there are too many videos on TikTok or, if you’re old school, too many books in the library.

Of course, it’s not just about fans; it’s about players too, and what makes sense from a business and governance standpoint. FIFPro, the world players’ union, regularly issues reports about workload, showing how too many matches can cause physical injury, stress and mental health problems. You’ll also get club managers complaining about the schedule, about how players don’t have time to train and recover. That’s often followed by somebody waving a metaphorical fist in the air and talking about “greed” whether from UEFA, FIFA, the Premier League or somewhere else.

FIFPro’s numbers are eye-opening. Vinicius Jr has already played twice the minutes that another young phenom, Ronaldinho, had played at the same age. Jude Bellingham, who turns 20 this month, has played 30% more than Wayne Rooney had at 20. And we know both Ronaldinho and Rooney suffered all sorts of strains that would ultimately limit their careers. That’s worth noting, as is the fact that FIFPro calculates that in 2024-25, with the expanded Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup, a player could theoretically play 89 games in a season for club and country.

But here’s the thing: that’s a theoretical limit. Those are outliers. Manchester City, with a squad full of internationals, went as far as they could in three competitions this season and reached the quarterfinals of a fourth (the League Cup) and yet just two players competed in more than 58 games in the past 12 months: Rodri (68) and Bernardo Silva (67). Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot. As FIFPro advocate, we should look to implement mandatory rest periods as well as eliminate “back-to-back” games: playing weekend-midweek-weekend over and over again has been shown to be seriously detrimental to players.

But the fact is the vast majority of professional footballers — and FIFPro members — don’t play anywhere near that amount of games: in fact, they play less than half that. And guess what? Most would love to play more games, not less. So would their clubs because, hey, that’s how they make money and stay afloat.

That’s why, incidentally, any attempt at comparing FIFPro or its national equivalents — like the Professional Footballers’ Association in England or AFE in Spain — with, say, the NBA union is misguided. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) represents less than 400 active players, all of whom are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, all of whom play in the same league and virtually all of whom are multimillionaires. Football unions simply have far less clout, partly because they have to navigate a thicket of different competitions and governing bodies, and mainly because their members range from folks making $6,000 a year to $6,000 an hour.

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Speaking as a fan, my own footballing utopia would be simple. Cut the top flight to 16 teams in the bigger leagues, cut the League Cup and equivalents, have a separate “international season” in which you play all national team games (say, May through June) and introduce mandatory rest periods in the offseason. Less is more. If done right, I think you could actually make more money, not less, even with fewer games.

But I’m not in charge, and I understand how different stakeholders view things differently and will fight their corner. Rightly so, from their perspective. Football is a patchwork of fiefdoms and power brokers. It’s a weird mix of socialism (the national game, governing bodies), capitalism (the club game, at least at the top end) and labor. There is no top-down power.

Remember how during the pandemic some folks wondered whether you could run out of shows to watch on Netflix? And then they realized they couldn’t? Football is the same way. It’s a giant streaming menu; it’s endless and undefined, offering so much on so many levels to so many people.

There can never be too much football given how many people watch and connect to its many competitions. It’s just a question of making it better, fairer and safer.

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