Gulf could be answer to Premier League stars’ World Cup woes
A winter break offering an escape from intense European competition can do a world of good
A few weeks ago, on a humid night in Doha, Luis Suarez scored the opening goal as Barcelona beat Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in a friendly. The Uruguayan, who in his autobiography eloquently expressed the importance of a winter break, was clearly enjoying the escape from intense European competition.
Suarez endured three of England's famously harsh winters while playing for Liverpool and left for Spain with little doubt as to the damage the lack of a mid-season break is doing to English clubs and the country’s national team.
“If English teams stopped for 15 days — and I realise this will never happen, but if it did — I think you’d see the difference in the way English teams were able to compete in European competition and with the national team,” he wrote in Crossing The Line, published in 2015.
Managers acknowledge the need for rest too. Sam Allardyce has been taking his teams to the United Arab Emirates for a few days each year for much of the 21st Century, making the most of an early FA Cup exit in January or escaping the following month once the fixture list enables a short getaway.
"More and more figures prove the winter break works,” Allardyce, now in charge of Crystal Palace, said in December 2015. “My teams have had breaks for the past 14 years in Dubai for five or six days. The stats tell you that my teams have improved their physical output in the last period of the season just by having five days’ break. In physical terms, you get a great benefit.”
Of Europe’s 54 leagues, only four — England, Israel, Northern Ireland and Wales — play throughout winter without stopping for some form of hiatus. The down-time differs from country to country with Germany taking a month, Italy and Spain taking three and two weeks respectively, and the likes of Russia and Ukraine taking around three months.
Teams afforded a break from competition tend to travel to warmer climes, primarily in the Middle East, for recuperative training. Bayern Munich have travelled to Doha; Celtic and Aberdeen, enjoying Scotland’s first winter break in 10 years, are in Dubai; while several other clubs have travelled to the likes of Tunisia and Abu Dhabi.
Suarez’s argument that England’s congested festive fixture list is to blame for the national team’s dismal record at major international tournaments is nothing new, but it fails to acknowledge the fact the Premier League is filled with players from overseas.
Research by Al Arabiya English suggests it is not only English players that suffer from the Premier League’s lack of a winter break. While Fifa’s quadrennial World Cup All-Star team can admittedly often appear an erratic assortment, a study of each selection since the start of the Premier League suggests few players plying their trade in England have shone on football’s grandest stage.
Of the 88 men named in Fifa's six all-star teams between 1994 and 2014, only 10 played in England the season leading up to the tournament. And none went on to lift the World Cup. Compare that to other top leagues in Europe, and it becomes clear players struggle to maintain form into the summer when not afforded a mid-season break.
Twenty-two All-Stars since 1994 played the previous season in Italy’s Serie A, including 11 who lifted the trophy such as Zinedine Zidane, who in 1998 played for Juventus. It is a similar situation in Spain, where 21 benefited from La Liga’s two-week winter break, nine of whom are World Cup winners and six of whom were part of Spain's 2010 squad. Germany’s Bundesliga was home to 15 all-stars, including six winners from Stuttgart's Dunga in 1994 to Bayern's Thomas Muller in 2014.
The figures are slightly skewed by Fifa’s decision to name a 23-man squad in 2006, but even removing those results, the Premier League still pales in comparison to the rest with only five all-stars — Dennis Bergkamp (1998); Sol Campbell, Claudio Reyna, Alpay Özalan (2002); David Luiz (2014) — against La Liga’s 19, Serie A’s 12 and the Bundesliga’s 11.
With Qatar scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup from November 21 to December 18, more players than ever will get to experience the winter warmth of the Middle East. And those plying their trade in the English Premier League will finally be able to compete on the world stage without an apparent disadvantage.