When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Mars Bars had an advertising slogan which I’m sure you know: “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.” I always got how the glucose, sugar and chocolate could give you the energy to, say, dig holes in the ground or run around the park with a football, but I never really understood how, exactly, that particular combination of ingredients helped you achieve rest.
The notion of rest and recovery in football is something I got to pondering on Friday afternoon. I was catching up on the football news in The Guardian, planning how to integrate watching the Confederations Cup and the UEFA U-21 European Championship with the duties (joys!) of a normal family life, and catching up on emails.
While reading The Guardian scoop on Rupert Murdoch’s plans for an annual, elite 16-team friendly tournament, I opened an email from the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport’s world governing body. The UCI management committee, at the end of a long consultation process, had come up with a number of recommendations. First on the list was: “A reduction in the number of races at the top level to rationalise the calendar in terms of logistics and competition days.”
No, you didn’t misread that. A reduction in top-level events in the sport.
Faced with a doping problem that threatens to permanently destroy the sport’s credibility, cycling’s guardians have come to realise that less is more. Someone who knows the sport far better than I do, told me recently that the physical demands on top cyclists in the current calendar is “inhuman,” which is perhaps why so many reach for more than a Mars Bar in their preparations.
I don’t think anyone would make the same claim for football, and fortunately the threat of widespread doping which briefly hovered around football in the 1990s (when clubs in France and Italy, in particular, were looking to athletics and cycling to recruit their fitness coaches) seems to have largely evaporated.
But those to whom we entrust the beautiful game do seem to spend their time thinking about how to expand the sport to fill every nook and cranny of the television schedules, 365 days a year, 24/7. And this does raise concerns about burn-out and maintaining optimal performance levels.
The Confederations Cup started out in 1992 as an invitation-only friendly event with a handful of teams, and has been transformed by FIFA into a mini-World Cup. UEFA’s European Championship will be expanded from 16 to 24 finalists in 2016. The European Cup has ballooned into the Champions League and the UEFA Cup into the Europa League. Qualifier matches for the World Cup and Euros have been reorganised by UEFA into the “Week of Football,” with broadcasters expected to show live matches across the whole window. Meanwhile, the top football leagues reject any suggestion that 20 teams is too many, a 380-game season too long.
No doubt most fans could think of as many examples again of football’s relentless expansion.
Do an online search for ‘rest and recovery in sport’ and you will find hundreds of learned articles, each with more or less the same message, which is this, taken from one article at random: “Rest days are critical to sports performance…There is immediate (short-term) recovery from a particularly intense training session or event, and there is the long-term recovery that needs to be built into a year-round training schedule. Both are important for optimal sports performance.”
Players, coaches and physios know this. Fans instinctively understand it. Fans also understand how scarcity increases value – much of the magic of the World Cup, for example, lies in the fact that it only happens every four years.
But there are entrepreneurs out there who see one day in the calendar with no top football and weep for the wasted commercial opportunities. Confederations, federations, leagues and clubs now look on those few gaps in the calendar with the mindset: “If we don’t get in there first and plug that gap, the others will.”
None of this is to suggest that Murdoch’s plan is any more heinous than any other pre-season tournament on the calendar. It is merely, and typically, more ambitious.
Still, it would be nice one day to receive a press release from the world of football saying that, after a consultation process with the game’s “stakeholders,” plans for further global dominance are being given a brief rest.
This is a personal perspective of Frank Dunne, editor of TV Sports Markets.