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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

‘We’re not bred for this’: Women’s football must look at innovative solutions to protect players

Over the past couple of years, the injury crisis in women’s football has threatened to garner more attention than the sport itself.

Two weeks ago, Chelsea striker Sam Kerr became the latest high-profile player to suffer an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. She follows Real Madrid and Scotland international Caroline Weir, two-time Ballon d’Or winner and 2023 World Cup winner Alexia Putellas, Women’s Super League record goalscorer Vivianne Miedema and European Championship Golden Boot winner Beth Mead.

The spate of ACL injuries have led many to point at the scheduling within the women’s game, with England captain Leah Williamson the latest to do so publicly. 

Miedema (left) is back from injury with Williamson expected to return shortly (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Speaking to The Telegraph, the Arsenal defender, who sustained an ACL injury in April of last year, claimed that the current calendar is not fit for purpose.

“We’re not bred for this. We get to October and girls are saying ‘I’m tired’ because you’re carrying so much from the previous season.

“We are driving ourselves into the ground, so some sort of solution needs to be found soon, in terms of the schedule, otherwise its not sustainable.”

The research seems to validate the 26-year-old’s concerns. A study conducted by players’ union FIFPro noted that footballers sustaining ACL injuries had made more appearances, had more instances of less than five days between matches and less rest time in the 28 days prior compared to non-injured players. 

Covid-19 has made the calendar particularly truncated, with the delayed Tokyo Olympics meaning that in a five-year span from 2021 to 2025, women’s football will have had two Olympic tournaments (2021 and 2024), two European Championships (2022 and 2025) and a World Cup (2023). That means a number of European teams will have only had one summer off, even if only the Netherlands can, at this point, play in all five of these tournaments. 

But research also suggests that under-loading remains a big issue — where players have inconsistent minutes which might lead to sharp jumps in the number of games played after longer periods without football.

Nowhere is this clearer than looking at Chelsea’s January schedule. After playing last Sunday (in the FA Cup against West Ham) for the first time in four weeks following the winter break, Chelsea are now about to play four games in nine days: against Manchester United in the WSL on Sunday, Real Madrid in the Women’s Champions League (UWCL) on January 24, Brighton in the WSL on January 27 and Paris FC in the UWCL on January 30.

Kerr tore her ACL a fortnight ago (Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

While the break allows players to have time off to rest, the stop-start nature might be doing more harm than good.

One issue is the amount of variety in the minutes played across the game. For example, Chelsea captain Millie Bright played 54 matches across the 2021-22 season, culminating in England’s victorious Euro 2022 campaign. Bright is currently out with a knee injury after playing for England at the World Cup last summer. Her return date is unknown, with Chelsea manager Emma Hayes confirming this week that Bright is unlikely to be back before the international break starting February 19.

The number of games Bright has played over the past few seasons is, however, in stark contrast to the average of 20 to 30 games a season that other WSL players might have.

This discrepancy makes it hard to determine the direction of the women’s calendar, especially when additional competitions — a biennial World Cup and a Club World Cup — as well as WSL expansion, from 12 to 16 or 18 teams, are being considered.

Some of these ideas have proven popular. Many female footballers — especially those in the Women’s Championship or in WSL clubs below the top three, which do not compete in the UWCL — have limited opportunities to play regular high-level, international football, while those at the very top might be playing too much.

A blanket solution looks unlikely. The rapid professionalisation of women’s football has led to differing experiences for players who, depending on their club, will have access to different resources and training programmes. Within sports science, there is a concern that not enough focus is being given to strength training which could help with injury prevention, something which might be exacerbated by body image concerns within the women’s game.

Williamson says she doesn’t want to see NFL-style squads of 40 players in the future because players are not able to play a full season. But expanding squad size or the number of players on substitute benches might be one solution to reduce the burden on individuals.

Expanding the number of players allowed on the bench could be a solution (Madeleine Penfold/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The issue is that managers are still required to rotate their squads, something that many are reluctant to do, preferring instead to start their strongest XI. Regardless of any changes to the calendar, whether in terms of expanding or reducing matches, clubs have a big role to play when it comes to considering player welfare.

In 2002, world governing body FIFA suggested imposing an upper limit on the number of matches a player could play. Their chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak compared it to the number of hours a van driver was permitted to drive. Suggestions like this shouldn’t be off the table. The opportunity to innovate should be one that is pursued with women’s football, rather than relentlessly focusing on making money.

Clubs, countries and governing bodies also all have roles to play in protecting players who are participating in a far more financially insecure sporting environment than their male counterparts. Investing in resources to support their mental and physical health on a day by day basis is as essential as considering what the future of the calendar looks like.

What Williamson’s honest interview shows is that players feel left behind. Football’s apparent continued willingness to treat them as expendable is a damning indictment of those at the top of the sport.

It is a problem that goes beyond schedules and instead gets to the very heart of many of the issues we see in the women’s game. If you do not value the welfare of those playing, you can end up leaving them broken. 

(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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