World Cup: A physical tournament awaits in Qatar, with injuries already claiming some stars

Manchester United defender Raphael Varane (second from right) has been included in France's squad despite not playing since picking up a hamstring injury on Oct q22. PHOTO: REUTERS

The sight of rolled ankles, twisted knees and tweaked hamstrings over the past month have gripped football fans the world over.

In hushed tones, they wonder: Is he going to miss the World Cup?

The historic timing of the tournament in Qatar – smack in the middle of the established club football calendar – has been challenging for players and clubs to negotiate. Any injury at this stage could rule a player out for the whole tournament.

Belgium assistant coach Thierry Henry, a winner with France in 1998, said the shift in scheduling has created a crunch in fixtures, which is to blame for the lengthy list of players who are sidelined.

The group stage for the Champions League in Europe – which features a significant number of the world’s top players – wrapped up two weeks ago, about three weeks earlier than it took last season.

“This is why, maybe, you have all those injuries,” said Henry, while speaking as a pundit on an American broadcast. “Because the bodies are not used to all those games at the beginning of the season.”

So just how can a player prepare for this one-of-a-kind World Cup? And what can he expect?

Mario Jovanovic, a former strength and conditioning coach for Croatia’s youth national sides up to the Under-21 level, said that despite the number of players already missing out, there could be fewer injuries happening in Qatar. This is because players are still generally fresher than at previous editions of the World Cup, which all took place at the end of club seasons.

As a result, he expects “the most physically competitive World Cup” to take place.

The Croat, who is now head of sports science at top Singapore Premier League club Lion City Sailors, added: “We saw amazing running performances in Russia (at the 2018 World Cup) from the matches that went to extra time.

“This time, players will have fewer league games in their legs and possibly still in their physical uptrend.

“The biggest clubs in Europe will have played only 20 games leading up to the World Cup. That’s a big difference compared to 50-60 games leading up to Russia 2018.”

Croatia’s 2-1 win over England at the 2018 World Cup was one of three matches they featured in that went to extra-time. There were five in total in Russia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Football Association of Singapore head of football science and medicine Haiyum Jaafar said clubs face an even trickier proposition keeping their players off the treatment table post-World Cup. He noted that the usual Christmas period crunch will be a “particularly major concern” for some Europe-based players.

The World Cup final will take place on Dec 18 and the English Premier League will resume just eight days later, with its traditional Boxing Day round of fixtures. Action in France’s Ligue One will resume two days later. As for the other top European leagues, the Spanish La Liga will restart on New Year’s Eve, the Italian Serie A on Jan 4, and the German Bundesliga on Jan 20.

While getting sufficient rest and recovery will be on players’ minds once they return to their clubs, they will also have to re-adjust from the relative warmth of the mild Qatari winter to the icy chill of the European one.

In fact, the weather in Qatar could be deemed to be ideal for football, with heat no longer a concern and temperatures expected to be in the low- to mid-20 deg C.

The humidity in Doha during the tournament will be between 50 and 70 per cent. In comparison, Singapore’s humidity during the current monsoon season is around 90 per cent, while it is about 80 per cent in London this time of the year.

Still, Jovanovic, who spent 4½ years at Qatar’s Aspire Academy before joining the Sailors in early 2021, said that players will need a period of acclimatisation and that the one week that most of the 32 participating teams get in the lead-up to the tournament is insufficient for them to adjust fully to the conditions.

Thankfully, he added, the transition to a drier climate is likely to be easier on the players than if it were the other way round.

“Most countries from Europe will be coming from cold and rainy weather to almost perfect conditions in Doha. They should have less issues showcasing their performance due to environmental factors,” he said.

Haiyum, though, pointed out: “It is not just the weather but the daily routine (sleep-eat-train cycle), as well as the living conditions that players need to adapt to as well.”

Teams are taking different approaches when it comes to adaptation. Croatia, for example, will play a tune-up game against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Wednesday. Germany and Argentina are having mini-camps in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, while Brazil will have one in Europe since most of their players are based on the continent.

Regardless of various approaches to fitness management, former England striker Teddy Sheringham believes what will matter most to how fatigued players will get in Qatar will be playing style.

The former Manchester United man, who played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, said teams who are able to keep possession of the ball could reap the benefits of playing in the dry climate.

“It’s not about when the games are or the time of year,” said Sheringham, 56, who retired in 2008.

“You have to keep the ball. If you don’t do that, you will tire out because you’re chasing your opponent and running them down. That’s all there is to it.”

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