Football must listen to players unhappy with the sports calendar after Thibaut Courtois’ comments on the Nations League

Thibaut Courtois certainly did not hesitate when asked for his opinion on the need for a play-off for third place in the UEFA Nations League, a game described as the most unnecessary on the international calendar. What the Belgian goalkeeper had to say reflected a growing sentiment in football.

“This game is just a gambling game, we have to be honest about it,” Courtois told Sky Sports.

“We play it just because for UEFA it’s extra money and it’s an extra game on TV. OK, for us it’s a good game because it’s against the Italy and for Italy it’s a good game because it’s against Belgium, but look how much both teams have changed their players – if we had both been in the final others would have played.

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Courtois was speaking after a 12 month stretch that pushed elite level footballers to the breaking point. The Covid-19 pandemic has consolidated the 2020/21 season to the point that most players have had to play two, sometimes three games each week in order to complete the campaign by this summer.

However, the demands placed on the best players in the sport have hardly eased since then. It was just over a month between the Euro 2020 final and the start of the new Premier League season. This current international break is the second of the season so far, with national teams playing three matches in September, with another scheduled for next month.

Courtois was playing in the ‘final’ of a newly created competition that runs alongside the standard qualification process for World Cups and European Championships. While the UEFA Nations League certainly offers more entertainment than the international friendly circuit it replaced, does it really need a play-off for third place?

UEFA Nations League final in Milan

Image credit: Getty Images

The Carabao Cup has already started, as has the Champions League which is expected to be extended from the 2024/25 season to feature more teams and include more matches. It’s always about more teams and more games. Plus everything. Players like Courtois have the right to feel that their role in this perpetual quest for expansion and growth is not taken into account.

As if the football schedule weren’t already busy enough, proposals are currently under consideration by FIFA that would see the World Cup played every two years rather than every four years as is currently the case. “If you look at the teams in the World Cup, the average age is usually 27 or 28,” said Arsene Wenger, now responsible for the development of world football at FIFA.

“Because the World Cup takes place every four years, there’s very little chance of winning it again, because when they come back to the next World Cup they’re 32 or 33 years old. That’s why maybe we should have the World Cup every two years. On top of that, the Club World Cup will be expanded to include 24 teams from next year – the Covid-19 pandemic has postponed plans for the change to take place this year.

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Image credit: Getty Images

Football does not do enough to consider what exactly it requires of its players. Courtois was certainly not the first to notice this. “Obviously it’s too much, absolutely obvious,” Jurgen Klopp said after Liverpool were forced to field a youth side in the Carabao Cup due to Club World Cup commitments at the same time. “Everyone involved in the game will tell you, and you know it too. “

A reset is required to recalibrate the sport program. Does English football really need so many cup competitions? If UEFA wants to establish the Nations League and the Europa Conference League and expand the Champions League, if FIFA wants a bigger World Cup, there must be concessions elsewhere. Football cannot continue to ask players to pay the price.

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Sara R. Cicero