The game’s toll: UEFA’s unseen consequences of tournament expansion
Footballers are sacrificing their bodies for the love of the game

The tournament expansions introduced by the Union of European Football Association’s (UEFA) Champions League have created a more intensive schedule of games, increasing players’ risk of injury. Investing immense physical and mental energy into back-to-back competitive matches without rest has taken a significant toll on footballers. However, the UEFA seems to value solid revenue streams over their players’ wellbeing. 

The UEFA’s Champions League is widely perceived as one of soccer’s most prestigious club tournaments, where Europe’s best teams fight to be crowned kings of the continent. When it was first created in 1955, the competition consisted of only 16 clubs, but the tournament grew bigger and more competitive as the sport developed. Each modern Champions League season starts with the “group stages,” in which 32 clubs are divided into eight groups of four teams. In each group, every team plays each other team in two matches: one home and one away. A team is rewarded three points if they win a match, and both teams receive one point if the match ends in a draw. The two teams with the most points in each group advance to the knockout stages.

The format of the tournament has been consistent for 30 years. However, a new Champions League format will be introduced in the 2024/25 season. Four more clubs will be added to the tournament for a total of 36 teams. The new system abandons the “group stage” format and instead groups all 36 teams into a single “league stage.” Each team will have to compete with eight different clubs to gain points. The top eight teams in the league automatically advance to the next round of 16, and the teams ranked in the 9-24 positions will compete in a “playoff round” to qualify for knockout stages.

The FIFA World Cup will also undergo expansion. The 2026 World Cup co-hosts, the US, Canada, and Mexico will welcome 48 nations, an increase from the traditional 32, to compete on football’s biggest stage. During the 2022 world cup, FIFA’s president Gianni Intantio announced a Club World Cup happening in 2025. This tournament consists of 32 clubs that feature the most competitive teams from each continental cup tournament around the globe. 

FIFPRO, the football players’ union, argues that increased game time for players, along with poorly coordinated cup competitions, will have an adverse effect on player health. Common injuries sustained by footballers are sprains, fractures, and joint dislocations, usually caused by forceful physical contact with opponents. Players are also at risk of concussions from constantly heading soccer balls. A study reported that the premier league has seen a significant increase in injuries in the months after the 2022 Qatar World Cup that was held mid-season. This statistic highlighted how players who participated in the World Cup were physically and mentally fatigued and thus more prone to injury in the regular league due to those conditions. 

Increased player injuries also hurt the clubs. When teams experience multiple injuries to their starting lineup, coaches are forced to drastically change their tactics or use youth players or bench fodders: players unexpected to play unless an injury occurs. Furthermore, if important players sustain long-term injuries, sporting directors are forced to shell out millions of pounds on reinforcement in the transfer market on short notice, which can affect the club’s budget for future transfer windows. So far, in the 2023/24 season, clubs such as Newcastle United, Chelsea, and Manchester United have all had their hopes of winning the title hampered by injury crises.

Those who advocate for tournament expansions argue that smaller clubs get more exposure playing for bigger tournaments, and clubs can receive more revenue from playing more competitive games.  This all seems reasonable on paper but, in practice, it comes at the cost of burning out the game’s brightest stars. 

Associate Sports Editor (Volume 50) — Bilaal is in his fourth year working towards a double major in Biology and Psychology and a minor in Professional Writing & Communication. When Bilaal isn’t procrastinating doing his assignments, you can catch him singing along to early 2000s RnB, watching Seinfeld, or coming up with absurd satire pitches he can get away with.


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