Are Injuries to Ronaldo, Messi and Ribery Down to Excessive Playing Time?

Guillem BalagueFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2013

SEVILLE, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 10:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona takes to the field for the La Liga match between Real Betis Balompie and FC Barcelona at Estadio Benito Villamarin on November 10, 2013 in Seville, Spain. Messi picked up a hamstring tear injury early on in the match and has now been ruled out for the next six to eight weeks according to the club. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Injuries are, and always have been, part of football. So much so, in fact, that at the time of this writing, the three front-runners for the 2013 Ballon d’Or—Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery—are all out of action.

FIFA decided in its wisdom to extend the deadline for voting from November 15 to November 29, to take in the World Cup play-offs—a move that will have done Portugal’s hat-trick hero Cristiano Ronaldo’s bid to secure the prestigious award for the second time no harm at all.

Ronaldo previously won it in 2008, when he was at Manchester United. Since then, of course, it has been the exclusive property of CR7’s nemesis, Leo Messi.

In truth, the main reason for moving of deadline was that, of the coaches and national team captains eligible to vote via FIFA, only 80 percent had done so, while the figure of journalists who had voted under the France Football banner was 90 percent. FIFA are looking for a full house.

Messi with the 2012 Ballon d'Or
Messi with the 2012 Ballon d'OrChristof Koepsel/Getty Images

But it is perhaps an unfortunate comment on the game that, with less than half the season gone, whichever of the three superstars eventually lifts the trophy may well end up having to hobble across to pick it up.

Why, I wonder, is this the case? Who is to blame?

Whatever the reason, there’s no doubting that as they get older, the bodies of the three contenders—(Ronaldo (28), Messi (26) and Ribery (30)—change, and unless they also change certain things in their routines and lifestyle, injuries become far more of a risk.

Secondly, playing 40 games a season is more than enough for anyone, but the fact is that with success comes more games. The top players are now playing up to—and in some cases, over—60 matches. Very often, something has to give.

2013-14 Season Starts
ClubCountryTotalGoalsAssists
Cristiano Ronaldo21829387
Lionel Messi15 (+1 sub)3 (+2 sub)18 (+3 sub)165
Franck Ribery15 (+2 sub)823 (+2 sub)1310
ESPNFC

Clearly FIFA, UEFA and the country’s federations must take their share of the blame, but so must coaches and players of the clubs themselves.

Rotation is a well-used word, but not a practice used enough in the case of the superstars. Up to getting injured this weekend, Ronaldo had played every minute of every game for Real Madrid this season.

Sometimes the position in the club of the elite means that coaches' hands are frequently tied and they are not able to substitute their club's crown jewels as often as they would like. This is mostly because those are the players who guarantee a better performance, and also because those players themselves do not want to miss a minute of playing time.

The delicate balancing act between the risking of puncturing egos and protecting vital investments needs to be addressed—not just for a season, but for the long-term benefits of both club and player alike.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Franck Ribery (R) of Muenchen celebrates scoring the opening goal with David Alaba of Muenchen during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Manchester City and FC Bayern Muenchen at Etihad Stadium on October 2,
Julian Finney/Getty Images

And we’re not just talking about physical injury here. We’ve seen situations of burnout with players like Michael Owen and even Raul, who, although still playing, definitely saw his level drop from the age of 27. It also happened to Ronaldinho and Brazil’s Ronaldo—two of the very best.

Coaches and players need to address the situation, and they need to study the calendar and realise that sometimes players need rest. Perhaps even more importantly, they need protection from themselves.

For an object lesson in how to do this, look no further than the wiliest of managerial foxes, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson would regularly, just after Christmas and just before the third round of the FA Cup, announce that players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Ryan Giggs were "injured."

These injuries were frequently treated with a spot of rest and relaxation, somewhere like the Cayman Islands.

The fact is, if Sir Alex used to give certain players a break, he didn’t do it out of the goodness of his heart, but rather because he knew it was the best thing to do. And if we want to see the best players lasting longer, it would help to have a definitive study of the effects of excessive playing time. 

Any scientist out there willing to give us the definitive answer?