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Asian Cup

Asian Cup: fixture congestion, player conditioning and the Australian heat

A look at the potential impact of fixture congestion, player conditioning and extreme weather conditions on the 2015 Asian Cup

This week, we have seen discussion from all angles ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup, but a rather under discussed area that will play a key role in the tournament are physiological factors. International football presents many challenges to coaches, and there are two primary issues for this particular event.

Fixture congestion – international football

The demands of international cup football are extreme, even in an era where club sides regularly play twice a week. Over the next twenty-one days, thirty-two matches will be played to decide the Asian Cup – it’s a treat for football fans, but incredibly tough on the teams involved.

As Michael Cox pointed out prior to Euro 2012, there is an inherent advantage towards the sides drawn in Group A or B. They will play six matches over twenty-one days, whereas those in Group D will play the same number in nineteen days. Every team will play three group games in the space of nine days, with just three days off between matches.

The only exception is Australia and Kuwait, who get an extra 20 hours recovery over their other group opponents – it might not sound like much, but in a period where games will come thick and fast, this can be hugely significant for conditioning coaches.

The biggest advantage comes at the semi-final stage. The two qualifiers from Group D will end up playing semi-final opponents who have had benefit of two extra days rest. Of course, rest time isn’t the only determinant of a football match, but there are studies that have quantified the impact of less recovery time on results.

The most well-known and memorable of these studies is the one conducted by controversial sports scientist Raymond Verheijen. He analysed 27,000 matches across seven major European leagues as well as the Champions League and Europa League, finding that “teams who had two days recovery compared to at least three were 42% less likely to win.”

Analysis of physical data on games played over the busy Christmas period in the English Premier League by Prozone found that there was a decrease in the number of sprints per game for teams who had two days rest (on average, 56.9 for this category) against those who had three days (who averaged 62.6 sprints). The study also revealed that the total distance of these sprints was shorter for the first category.

It would be fascinating to compare the physical data of sides as they play their group stage matches – would there be a drop-off in the numbers by the third group stage match? It would also be telling to compare the stats after the two semi-finals, as they may give an indication as to the effects of fatigue accumulation on the teams from Group C and D versus those in Group A and B.

Fixture congestion – club football

It would be remiss to overlook the fact, too, that the conditioning level of players varies depending on their club side. Those from the English Premier League, for example, like Australia’s Mile Jedinak and Swansea’s Ki Seung-yung, have just played three games in seven days – that has an obvious impact on their level of fatigue and conditioning when they come into their respective teams training camps.

The time difference, too, increases the recovery time required. Jedinak himself admitted he was still getting used to the time difference on the second day of the ten-day Socceroos training camp, saying at that time it would still take him a couple of days to get used to the change in time zone. According to the training reports on the official Socceroos reports, Jedinak didn’t join full training until the 4th of January – the issue with having a key member of the starting XI unable to train until halfway through a camp is obvious, and must be frustrating for Postecoglou.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are these teams dealing with a lack of fixtures. A team like China, whose entire squad is domestically based, finished their league in early November. That’s two months immediately before tournament where no player in the squad played regular football, a necessity when it comes to developing the conditioning necessary for a full 90 minute match.

International football is very different to club football, with managers relying on players who are at different stages of their seasons and who play different roles at their clubs. It presents very unique challenges for coaches.

Heat

One challenge faced by all coaches at the Asian Cup, however, is heat. Australia’s warm climate is world famous, but in recent years, the effects of this upon performance have become a very contentious issue. In the A-League, a Round 13 match between Perth Glory and Adelaide United was basically defined purely by the weather, as temperatures reached a scorching 39 degrees, raising serious questions about the safety and welfare of the players.

Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Adam Vivian, was firm in a statement made on the day of the most recent match.

“The PFA has engaged in discussions with FFA and the clubs throughout the days leading up to the match regarding player welfare.

Both the Adelaide and Perth players have expressed their concerns regarding the potential for the match to be played in conditions that pose a serious risk to both their health and safety as well as the quality of play. These concerns were relayed to FFA however; they have not yet been heeded to the extent the players desire.

The PFA and the players understand the commercial realities associated with the broadcast times, however this should never come at the cost of players’ health and safety or their ability to perform at their best.”

First, it’s important to understand the procedures that ensure a match can be played in safe conditions. As opposed to using a traditional, basic measure of air temperature, the FFA and FIFA use what is called a ‘Wet Bulb Globe Temperature’ (WBGT), a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover. This provides a more accurate measure of potential heat impact on the players.

The global governing body, FIFA, says that “additional cooling breaks are considered when WBGT is above 32”, with no specification over when a game should be cancelled or postponed. FFA’s own policy adheres to the recommendations put forward by the American College of Sports Medicine which suggest that any match where the WBGT is above 28 should be considered for postponement.

It is unclear what the policies will be for matches at the Asian Cup – presumably, they would fall under FIFA guidelines as this is an international tournament – but in a month where temperatures in Australia regularly reach 28-30°C and temperatures in Melbourne reached 40°C on January 2nd, there are valid questions to be asked about what is and what is not appropriate guidelines to manage the health and safety of players.

These questions have intensified recently because latest evidence is overwhelming in highlighting the negative impact of heat. A recent study at the Aspetar Sports Hospital in Qatar found that in comparing two matches, one played at 21°C, the other at 43°C, total distance covered decreased by 700m and that distance covered at a speed greater than 14km/hr decreased from 2.2 km to 1.7 km.

As Doug Kors pointed out this time last year:

“The fatigue caused by these conditions may also increase the risk of non-contact ACL injuries, an injury in which dry weather and surface are a potential risk factor (Alentorn-Geli et al., 2009). A recent study completed by Orchard et al (2013) has supported this theory after they found that AFL teams in Australia, and football teams in Europe, playing in a warmer climate are more likely to suffer ankle sprains and ACL injuries”

Heat-related injuries have already dominated a major sporting event in Australia at this time of the year. The 2014 Australian Open was the subject of severe criticism after four consecutive days of temperatures averaging around 42°C saw a number of players, fans and officials suffer from heat injuries such as dizziness, fainting and hallucinations.

A record number of players (9) retired in the first round, illustrating the impact of the heat, although organisers always maintained the WBGT never went higher than the pre-determined threshold of 28. Amazingly, rather than decreasing, the threshold was actually increased for the 2015 tournament, moving from 28 to 32.5.

In a month where Australia takes centre stage for Asia’s flagship tournament, it’s vital that the officials take appropriate steps to manage the health and safety of players.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at GHFA Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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