Zabaleta: Reformed match calendar can benefit players and fans

  • Former Argentina star says reorganisation can reduce football’s imbalance between continents.

  • Players being consulted on football’s calendar post-2024 as part of wide-ranging review.

  • Zabaleta: Playing qualifying matches in fewer blocks can create “a better connection” between fans and national team

Former Argentina international Pablo Zabaleta has endorsed wide-ranging changes to football’s international match calendar, saying that fewer windows of national team matches from 2024 will reduce physical and mental fatigue of the players and enable fans to engage more with their national teams.

FIFA is reviewing the global calendar on the request of the overwhelming majority of its 211 member associations at the 71st FIFA Congress earlier this year, having a blank canvas on which to design an optimised calendar that is fit for the needs of the modern sport and the society around it.

“I think reducing the number of international breaks in a season would be really useful,” said Zabaleta, an Olympic Football Tournament gold-medallist in 2008 with Argentina in Beijing. “As a South American, every time we used to have an international break, we had to travel many miles in order to play two international matches before going back to our clubs.”

Indeed, over a four-year cycle, South American stars playing for European clubs could travel up to seven times more than their European counterparts, increasing the global imbalance that is reflected in the fact that only one non-European nation has featured in a final across the last four editions of the FIFA World Cup, when an Argentina side including Zabaleta was defeated by Germany in extra-time of the 2014 showpiece.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 13: Pablo Zabaleta of Argentina and Andre Schuerrle of Germany compete for the ball during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina at Maracana on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“It’s very important to take a close look at this divide between Europe and the rest of the continents,” continued Zabaleta. “Representing your country is always a very proud moment, so I think it’s important to look at ways to bridge this growing gap. In world competitions, it’s the European national teams that are reaching the finals and, as such, we need to pay attention to the other countries so they don’t lag behind and so they have the tools they need to keep developing their footballers.”

“Reducing those five international breaks and being able to play all the games in one month would mean much less travel and benefit the players in terms of reducing physical and mental fatigue,” Zabaleta added. “Particularly from the fans’ point of view, they would be able to enjoy four or five of their national team’s matches in one month and there would be a better connection between the fans and the national team. Players would be able to focus [completely] on their national teams before returning to their clubs.”

FIFA is engaging all stakeholders in football in a transversal review process which is assessing the best ways of optimising calendars for men’s, women’s and youth football.