As Lionel Messi inspired his Argentina side to their third soccer World Cup in Qatar last year, his competitors were left nursing battle wounds worth hundreds of millions of dollars—largely as a result of the grueling tournament.
The FIFA World Cup was held in November and December 2022, in the middle of Europe’s busy soccer season. Nearly three-quarters of players who featured at the World Cup last year came from leagues in the continent, according to analysis by Al Jazeera.
Unsurprisingly then, new research finds the tournament placed a particularly heavy burden on those European clubs.
A report published by London-based insurance group Howden shows player injuries cost the teams in Europe’s five biggest leagues €704.9 million ($767 million) last season, a staggering 27% rise in injury costs from the year before.
Teams from England’s Premier League suffered the biggest losses. The league endured a total of 49 injuries in the two months after the World Cup was hosted, amounting to a $282 million hit. Germany’s Bundesliga was close behind with 46 injuries, though the numbers were far lower for clubs in Spain, Italy, and France.
The average time out for players who participated in the tournament was eight days longer in January 2023 than it was before the tournament, in October 2022, according to the report. Knee injuries, at €540,000 ($590,000) per occurrence, proved the most costly last season.
Footballing powerhouses Real Madrid and Manchester United were left licking their wounds more than most last year, as the sides endured a combined 141 injuries over the 2022/23 season.
Fatigue comes for footballers
The 2022 Qatar World Cup was the first time the tournament was played in winter, forgoing its traditional June and July time slot that coincides with European football clubs taking their off-season break.
The tournament was controversially moved to the winter to accommodate the scorching temperatures during Qatar’s summer, which can reach up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Players also unusually took water breaks during matches to lessen the chances of fatigue.
However, this led to a huge level of fixture congestion as European teams tried to squeeze their seasons around the month-long tournament. Players who participated in the competition saw the number of games they played last season soar.
Manchester United and Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes played 6,666 minutes of football in the year between September 2022 and 2023, more than any other player, according to the football players’ union Fifpro. Portugal reached the World Cup quarter-finals, while Manchester United went deep into several tournaments last season.
“The data is clear in demonstrating a trend, and we hope our research and analysis will provide Europe’s top clubs with additional insight as they continue to talk to the game’s governing bodies about an improved alignment of the domestic and international calendars and the broad issue of fixture congestion,” said James Burrows, Howden’s head of sport.
The heightened risk of injuries from the schedule shift was widely foreseen among the game’s leading figures. A week before kick-off in Qatar, Fifpro warned fatigue would limit the playtime of the sport’s biggest stars.
“We might still see an incredible World Cup because players are leaving it all out there and we might see some countries playing miraculous football, but the bigger picture increases the probability of injury and increases the probability of fatigue-limiting performance. That is what the science says.” Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, Fifpro’s general secretary, told the Guardian
The tournament was also the first to introduce new rules on added time that sought to deter time-wasting. This contributed to games being four minutes longer on average compared with the 2018 World Cup, according to analysis by Squawka.
Howden’s findings—released a year after the first ball was kicked at the World Cup—are a reminder of the controversy surrounding FIFA’s choice to award the tournament to Qatar, a tiny nation with limited soccer heritage that needed a major schedule overhaul to host it.
Qatar’s hosting was regarded by many as a push for “soft power” to help it influence foreign policy. The strategy—labeled “Sportswashing” by critics—has been adopted by other wealthy Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia.
Qatar was also scrutinized for its labor practices during the building of the country’s stadiums, which relied heavily on migrant workers from poorer countries.
An investigation by the Guardian found 6,500 of those workers died in the decade since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. There has been no formal investigation by Qatar into these deaths, which the paper reported are likely to be an underestimate.
Amnesty International said workers additionally faced unpaid or delayed wages and were denied rest days.
The country also faced criticism for its human rights record, particularly its treatment of the LGTBQ population. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with those found guilty facing fines, prison sentences, and even the death penalty.