‘Injuries will decide the title race’ is a phrase that football fans hear year in, year out as the season approaches its conclusion. Of course, football is a complex game and one single factor doesn’t determine who wins and who loses - skill, schedule, mental toughness and the fixture list certainly play big roles, too - but just how much does the latest injury and suspension news actually affect football?
To put it simply, sometimes a lot and sometimes not at all. Luis Suarez’s four month ban from all football-related activities for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup had much bigger ramifications than the automatic one game suspension that he was given midway through the 2016/17 La Liga campaign for picking up his fourth yellow card of the season.
Likewise, Eduardo de Silva’s horror leg break against Birmingham City back in the 2007/08 Premier League campaign was partially to blame for Arsenal throwing what appeared to be their title in the final few months of the season, while the thigh problem that kept him out of another clash with Birmingham two seasons later was far less of a loss.
Injuries and suspensions certainly play a role in football, but just how big that role is comes down to a number of factors, such as the club, player, time of year and the severity of the situation.
Common football injuries
Football is one of the most intense sports played today. The average tennis match takes more than two and a half hours to play, yet sees approximately 33 minutes of action. A game of American football takes more than three hours to complete, yet the ball is in play for just 11 minutes on average. A football match, on the other hand, is 90 minutes long, yet players spend approximately two thirds of that time competing for possession of the ball.
Intense physical activity and injury go hand in hand. It’s a part of the game and something that all players should expect to suffer through at some point in their career.
Of course, it is possible to suffer injury to any part of your body - just ask former Rangers defender Kirk Broadfoot, who received a facial injury as a result of an exploding egg, or former Manchester United shot-stopper Alex Stepney, who dislocated his jaw shouting at his teammates. However, in football, some injuries occur more often than others. Some of the most common football injuries include:
Ankle sprains: The most common football injury by far, sprained ankles often occur as a result of pivoting while your foot is planted on the ground. Players will usually recover within one to two weeks.
Hamstring strains: The hamstrings are particularly susceptible to injury during a game of football due to the level of intensity and will usually occur while sprinting. There are three ‘grades’ for hamstring injuries, which can take anywhere one to 10 weeks to heal.
Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury: Connecting the thigh and shin, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) can rupture if a player’s leg twists against their body weight when changing directions or landing a jump. A torn ACL can take anywhere from six to nine months to fully heal.
Hernias: Due to the stress put on the pelvic area when kicking a ball, hernias are a common occurrence in football players. Hernia treatment usually takes between four to six weeks, but may take longer depending on how it is treated.
Meniscus tears: These injuries occur when the leg rotates while the knee joint is bearing weight, causing the menisci cartilage to jam between the bones, and usually takes six to eight weeks to fully heal.
As you can probably guess, approximately 80% of all football-related injuries are suffered in the lower half of the body, most often in the legs and feet. Most injuries can be overcome with time and therapy. Although, that isn’t always the case. While head injuries are less common, they are among the most dangerous potential injuries for a player to suffer, while major bone breaks can also potentially end a player’s career.
Players can receive a suspension for a range of offences. Robin van Persie was hit with a one match Champions League ban back in 2011 for kicking the ball seconds after the referee had blown his whistle in a Round of 16 clash with Barcelona, while Jonjo Shelvey was handed a five match ban during the 2016/17 Championship campaign for racially abusing Romain Saiss during Newcastle’s clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The general rules for suspendable offences are set out by the sport’s governing body, FIFA. According to the Laws of the Game, referees should show yellow and red cards for fouls committed within a match depending on the severity of the situation. While FIFA set the guidelines, it is generally down to the referee to decide whether an offence warrants a card. Two yellow cards equal a red card and a red card sees the player ejected from the game. Should a player receive a red card, they will also be suspended from the following match.
While FIFA set the rules, they are not in charge of dishing out suspensions, unless the incident occurs during a FIFA event, such as the World Cup. Instead, the local governing body sets the suspension. This is set in terms of matches, days or months and cannot exceed 24 matches or 24 months. These organisations must then inform FIFA of their decision so that it can be added to a global database.
Should the referee fail to spot an incident, it is then up to the governing body in charge of the competition to investigate and agree on the level of punishment. Punishable offences and the level of punishment often varies depending on the country, but common offences which are often taken out of the referee's hands include violent conduct, such as stamping, abusive language and spitting. These events will be reviewed by a judicial panel, with a three game ban often handed out as the standard punishment. However, there are no specific guidelines and harsher punishments can be set on a case-by-case basis.
How much do injuries and suspensions affect the professional game?
Injuries and suspensions can affect the game in a number of ways, from denying fans from watching their favourite players perform to forcing managers to change their gameplans at short notice. ‘No player is bigger than the club’ is a popular saying in the world of football, but sometimes that just isn’t true. This usually becomes apparent when a team loses a star player to an injury or suspension. However, the extent and type of loss usually differs depending on the club and player involved.
How injuries and suspensions affect performance
It’s difficult to measure how the loss of a player impacts a club as the same injury or suspension would have vastly different impacts on two different clubs. A club with huge financial backing, for example, would find it much easier to cope with the loss of a player than a team with very little money to spend.
While a ‘big’ club usually has two to three players of a similar level capable of filling one position in a team, smaller clubs often don’t have the same level of cover and are required to dip into their reserves or youth teams to find a replacement. Occasionally this will result in a surprise breakthrough, but more often than not the players brought in are unprepared and below par.
However, that isn’t to say that injuries and suspensions don’t affect big clubs, as the game quite often proves that to be incorrect. Studies have shown that a higher level of player availability increases success in UEFA’s continental competitions, the Europa League and the Champions League. What this suggest is while one or two minor injuries may not do much damage to ‘big’ sides, a high frequency of injuries can harm performance.
Of course, we see time and time again that injuries and suspensions can be make or break for teams involved in the title race. Leicester City’s 2015/16 title win came as a shock, yet statistically speaking, it should have been expected - Claudio Ranieri’s side saw players out injured for a combined total of just 275 days throughout the campaign (in contrast to Newcastle United, who racked up 2230 days lost to injury and were subsequently relegated), which is often the case for Premier League champions. The same was true for Chelsea in 2014/15 and Manchester City in 2011/12.
How injuries and suspensions affect finances
Much like performance, it’s easy to suggest that injuries and suspensions cost smaller clubs much more than they do bigger sides, but it is easy to forget the huge sums of money that many of the big clubs are paying their stars.
In fact, an injury to the wrong player can end up costing clubs millions. Some Premier League stars are currently earning upwards of £200,000-a-week and if, for example, they break a leg, it can often take close to a year for the leg to heal and the player to return to full fitness, meaning the club would have paid out more than £10 million in wages to a player that they are unable to use. However, the same amount of time on the sidelines for a player on just £10,000-a-week would come to just over £500,000. While still a large sum of money, it is a significantly easier loss to take.
Likewise, the cost of losing a star player can be felt in much bigger ways for teams competing at the highest level. With six or more teams often competing for the top four places in the Premier League each season, the margins between each team at the top are always incredibly tight. Places are often decided by a single point, or occasionally even a single goal, and losing your 20+ goals-a-season striker for one game could prove to be the difference between finishing fourth and fifth. And the cost of missing out on a place in the Champions League? As much as £45 million, depending on how well the team performs.
How injuries affect players
What was once a game is now a business which sees billions of pounds in turnover year by year. The Premier League alone adds more than £3 billion to the UK economy each year and more than £500 million is now spent on average during each summer transfer window. Given the multi-million pound price tag stuck on each player’s head, it is easy to forget that off of the football pitch, just like you and me, they are normal people.
When a player sustains an injury, our thoughts turn to what it will mean for the team. Yet, the biggest impact that it has is undoubtedly on the player. While minor injuries can be treated quickly, leaving no long-term effects, major or lengthy injuries can be career-threatening and life changing for the player involved.
Studies have shown that sports-related injury can trigger a range of emotions in the player, including anger, sadness, loneliness and isolation. These players spend most of their day thinking about football - when they train, when they eat and when they sleep - and to be told that they have to go without the game for a number of days, weeks or months can be devastating. However, the vast majority of these players are able to return to the level that they were prior to the injury.
Although, that isn’t always the case. You only have to look at players such as Owen Hargreaves and Fernando Torres to see the devastating results that an injury can have on a player. Whether it’s an injury that never quite heals properly, a loss of speed or power, loss of confidence or simply a fear of suffering another injury, some players are never quite return from a lengthy spell on the sidelines.