Thibaut Courtois certainly didn’t hold back when asked to give his opinion on having to play a UEFA Nations League third-place play-off match, a fixture labelled as the most pointless in the international calendar. What the Belgium goalkeeper had to say reflected a growing sentiment across football.
“This game is just a money game, we have to be honest about it,” Courtois told Sky Sports.
“We just play it because for UEFA it is extra money and it is an extra game on TV. OK, for us it's a good game because it's against Italy and for Italy it's a good game because it's against Belgium, but look how much both teams changed their players - if we had both been in the final there would have been others playing.”
UEFA Nations League
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Courtois was speaking after a 12-month period that has pushed elite level footballers to breaking point. The Covid-19 pandemic bunched up the 2020/21 season to the point that most players had to play two, sometimes three, matches every week in order to get the campaign completed by this summer.
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However, the demands being made of the sport’s best players have barely eased since then. There was just over one 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 fixtures in September, and there is another coming next month.
Courtois was playing in the ‘Finals’ of a recently-created competition that runs parallel to the standard qualifying process for World Cups and European Championships. While the UEFA Nations League certainly provides more entertainment than the international friendly circuit it replaced, does it really need a third-place play-off match?
UEFA Nations League Finals in Milan
Image credit: Getty Images
The Carabao Cup has already started, as has the Champions League which is set to be expanded from the 2024/25 season to feature more teams and include more matches. It’s always about more teams and more matches. More everything. Players like Courtois are entitled to feel their role in this perpetual drive to expand and grow isn’t being considered.
As if football’s calendar isn’t already congested enough, proposals are currently being considered 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 Cups, usually the average age is 27 or 28,” Arsene Wenger, now FIFA’s chief of global football development, tried to explain.
“Because the World Cup is every four years there are very few chances to win it again because when they go back to the next World Cup they are 32 or 33. That's why maybe we should organise the World Cup every two years.” On top of this, the Club World Cup will be expanded to include 24 teams from next year - the Covid-19 pandemic postponed plans for the change to take place this year.
Arsene Wenger reacts while awarding The Best FIFA Women's Coach award to Sarina Wiegman
Image credit: Getty Images
Football isn’t doing enough to consider what exactly they are demanding of their players. Courtois certainly isn’t the first to have noted this. “It's obvious that it's too much, absolutely obvious,” Jurgen Klopp said after Liverpool were forced to field a youth team in the Carabao Cup due to Club World Cup commitments at the same time. “Everybody involved in the game will tell you that, and you know it as well.”
A reset is needed to recalibrate the sport’s schedule. Does English football really need so many cup competitions? If UEFA wants to establish the Nations League and Europa Conference League and expand the Champions League, if FIFA wants a bigger World Cup, there must be some concessions elsewhere. Football can’t keep asking the players to pay the price.
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