England manager Gareth Southgate says football needs "collaboration" between the club and international game to ensure that the physical and psychological well-being of top players is a priority during what promises to be the most demanding and draining season in memory.
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With top-level football across the globe grinding to a halt for three months earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2019-20 season became the longest on record. Bayern Munich's Champions League final victory over Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon, Portugal, finally "closed" the campaign on Aug. 23 -- 14 months after the season began. The focus on getting last season finished was, understandably, the primary objective for leagues and associations, but the flip side of the delayed conclusion is the congested nature of the 2020-21 campaign.
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Most major leagues are due to kick off in mid-September -- France and Scotland have already started, having cancelled their 2019-20 campaigns -- but despite the late start, the club game must still be wrapped up by the end of May, with the Champions League final in Istanbul set for May 29.
With the postponed Euro 2020 also due to be staged next summer, football's biggest clubs and the game's leading stars are now faced with the prospect of squeezing an 11-month season into 10, and Southgate, whose England side face Iceland in the Nations League in Reykjavik, on Saturday -- Watch LIVE on ABC/ESPN3, 12 p.m. ET (U.S. only) -- admits he has concerns over how it will all play out between now and the Euro 2020 final on July 11 of next year.
"The calendar is packed and it needs collaboration from everybody to try to resolve that," he said. "It's easy to try to cram everybody's desire in, in terms of their own competitions, but the reality is that the best players end up playing in the most matches and we have to try and play our part in terms of navigating that."
England's clash with Iceland, followed by a fixture against Denmark in Copenhagen three days later (Watch on ESPN2, 9/8, 2:45 p.m. ET, U.S. only), is an example of the ongoing tug-of-war between the club and international game for players' time. UEFA's decision to go ahead with the first round of Nations League fixtures before most domestic leagues have started has led to disquiet within the club game, with one source telling ESPN that the first stage of games should have been postponed to enable players to have a longer break.
Some players, such as Manchester City's Raheem Sterling and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford, were selected by Southgate for this week's fixtures despite having little over two weeks rest between their final club game of the season and reporting for England duty on Monday. Rashford has since withdrawn from the squad because of an ankle injury.
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Wales manager Ryan Giggs, whose team played Finland on Thursday and face Bulgaria (Watch LIVE on ESPN3, 9/6, 9 a.m. ET, U.S. only) during this international break, admits it will be a tough balancing act to keep club managers happy this season.
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"I'm sure I will do things that will upset the club managers and vice-versa, but that comes with the territory," Giggs said. "You try and negate that as much as you can, but we have good communication with the clubs and make sure we look after the players as much as we can.
"If there's any risk, we have to take careful consideration in terms of how many games the players have played and what's their injury record. It's not something we will get right all the time -- sometimes there is a calculated gamble in there, but we definitely do our best to look after the players' welfare. We want players fit for the summer and we don't take any chances that players are going to get injuries."
England's stars like Raheem Sterling, center, are ready for Nations League duty despite having barely two weeks off since the 2019-20 season officially concluded. Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images
There are six Nations League matchdays between now and mid-November and a seemingly nonstop slog of club fixtures before and after those international dates. Despite being slated to start a month later than usual, in mid-October, the Champions League and Europa League group stages will still have six matchdays played between Oct. 20 and Dec. 10. Domestic cup competitions will also jostle for position on the calendar.
In England, the winter break has been abandoned in February to enable games to be played, so there is a real prospect of players reporting for duty at Euro 2020 having had little or no respite this season, something Southgate admits is a worrying possibility.
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"Definitely in December and January -- post-Christmas -- there is a challenge for everybody and I think every coach and club in the league, as well as ourselves on the international stage, would have a concern about how that is all managed," Southgate said. "But there is not one solution to this. I know a lot of people are talking about the number of games that the players have played, but last season was unique.
"It was a season interrupted by a very long break -- probably longer than any of the players have ever had -- and although they would have kept themselves ticking over during that period and trained individually, it's not the same as their workload and stress of playing. They have since had a short break, which I think is important for all of them from a psychological perspective. They need to recover psychologically too.
"But physically, at this moment, they will be OK. In terms of overload right now, I don't have a concern, though I think that concern may come later. We have to get the training schedule right during this camp because some are adapting back into preseason periods and some will be joining us straight from holiday.
"But ultimately, the easiest way to do it is to have the strongest possible squad so we can manage minutes, but we also have a responsibility with our training schedule to make sure we get that right."
If club and international managers get it wrong, the best players in Europe will get to Euro 2020 next June needing a holiday rather than a month attempting to become European champions.