Kevin de Bruyne and Man City have been granted their wish amid fixture row – Alex Brotherton
Kevin de Bruyne has been allowed to leave the Belgium national team camp a few days early, so he can begin his long-awaited and much-needed summer vacation.
The Red Devils are due to play Poland on Tuesday in their final game of the current round of UEFA Nations League fixtures, but the Manchester City star has been given permission to sit the game out after what has been a long and gruelling season. Since the pandemic-disrupted 2019/20 season resumed in August 2020 with Project Restart, De Bruyne as barely stopped to catch his breath.
The resumption of the league flowed seamlessly into Nations League fixtures and the start of the 2020/21 season, a 40-game campaign that saw the midfielder suffer several facial fractures in the Champions League final. He battled past that to represent his country at EURO 2020 just a few weeks later, where he suffered an ankle injury that severely curtailed his pre-season and caused him to miss the opening month of City’s 2021/22 campaign.
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After recovering from Covid-19 in December he played in 31 of City’s 36 games, before joining up with his national team just a week after winning the Premier League title. In short, De Bruyne has played an awful lot of football over the past two years, making his recent criticism of UEFA’s new(ish) tournament entirely understandable.
“The Nations League is unimportant in my eyes,” De Bruyne said before Belgium took on the Netherlands on June 3. “[They are] just glorified friendlies after a long and tough season. I am not looking forward to it.
“As players, we can talk about vacation or rest, but we have no say. We have a little more than three weeks of vacation every 12 months.”
While De Bruyne might have let his frustrations get the better of him a little with his comments — generally speaking the Nations League has been a success and has meant fewer meaningless, boring friendlies clogging up the calendar — he’s right to criticise the timing of recent internationals.
With the World Cup not until November, this summer was the perfect chance to afford players the chance to rest and allow niggling injuries to heal ahead of what is going to be a long and congested 2022/23 season. Squeezing an entire World Cup into the middle of the domestic season will come at a cost — and that cost will surely be player welfare.
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk backed De Bruyne up, opining that the Nations League is adding to the number of pointless friendlies, not detracting from. He correctly noted that there would not normally be four national team fixtures immediately after the season.
Gareth Bale was of a similar opinion. He told reporters that De Bruyne could play 79 matches next season between club and country, a frankly unhealthy amount of games.
“It’s too much, things obviously need to change,” said the Welshman. “Every player will tell you there are way to many games, it’s impossible to play at a high level for that many games. There will be consequences in the long term, people’s bodies can’t deal with that kind of calendar year after year.”
De Bruyne, Van Dijk and Bale are all right: elite footballers are playing far too much football with not enough time in-between games for adequate recovery.
De Bruyne is within his rights to speak out, but until more players demand change it seems unlikely anything will change.