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Unique World Cup start date changes how top players approach club season

There have been World Cup games played at altitude and at sea level, in torrential rains and under a blazing sun.

But never has there been one played in the fall, in the middle of the club season. That will happen this year when the first World Cup to be held in the desert kicks off in November in Qatar.

And no one appears certain how to approach it.

“I don’t know, honestly. There’s never been in history something like this,” said Manchester City midfielder Rodri, who hopes to play in the tournament for Spain.

“It is going to be something difficult,” agreed Juventus midfielder Ángel Di María, who will play in his fourth World Cup for Argentina. “You have to adapt. You have to work [for your club] until the World Cup comes, then when you come back from the World Cup, try to continue in the same way.”

A fall World Cup has altered schedules and routines in other ways too. With the league schedules beginning earlier, many players reported to training camp fit rather than trying to play their way into shape in preseason and early season games. And they’ll have to maintain that fitness through an unusually long, trifurcated and exhausting season that will feature as many as 22 pre-World Cup games, the World Cup, then five more months of club matches.

“For the first part of the season, you want to be fit. Then you go into the World Cup. And of course every player wants to be in the best shape possible to perform on the highest level,” said German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, who plays for Barcelona. “Then we still have months to go to finish the season in our clubs. So it’s definitely a tricky situation.

“It’s tricky to have the objective [of the] World Cup but also the objective to be in perfect shape for the rest of the season afterward.”

Barcelona’s goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, right, makes a save in front of Frankfurt’s Filip Kostic on April 7 in Frankfurt, Germany.

(Michael Probst / Associated Press)

Added Rodri: “It’s going to demand a lot of us physically.

“It’s going to be a long season. … The last month will be tough.”

That balancing act will be even tougher for young players still trying to win a place on their club and national teams. Teenage midfielder Jamal Musiala made his debut for Bayern Munich in June 2020 at 17 and played his first match for the German national team 10 months later. But he still has a lot to prove and can’t afford to put one team over the other.

“It’s very different to what’s happened before,” he said. “We have to go with the same mentality. Just start the season off good, because the club football is very important. And just have the World Cup in your mind. Stay healthy and go into the World Cup in good form.”

Staying healthy will likely become a preoccupation this fall for many players, especially those dealing with nagging injuries as the World Cup break approaches. But Musiala says that can’t dictate how players perform.

“Personally, I wouldn’t think like that,” he said. “I wouldn’t have the thought of being scared to get injured in my mind because if you think that way, that opens possibilities to actually getting injured. You just go into every game how you normally would.”

“It’s going to be a long season. …The last month will be tough.”

— Manchester City and Spain midfielder Rodri

Di María agrees. He attacked the preseason, his first with Juventus, in an attempt to prove his fitness. The team opens its Serie A season on Monday, hosting Sassuolo.

“You have to work in the same way, you have to prepare the same as always,” he said in Spanish. “Trying to be in the best shape physically, that’s what will give you the possibility of being able to do well in the [league season]. And when the [national team] selection comes, continue in the same way.

“That day-to-day work is important — more so at this stage in preseason to be able to be physically well.”

There are positives to the new schedule. The emphasis on conditioning, for example, combined with a World Cup that will be played in the middle of the club season rather than at the end of it will result in fresher, fitter players and a tournament that will be better-played and more competitive.

Consider that the 2018 World Cup opened just 19 days after Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid completed a fatiguing nine-month, 62-game club season by beating Liverpool in the Champions League final. Real Madrid’s season will be just 20 games old at the World Cup break this fall.

And the fact the tournament will be played in tiny Qatar, where the greatest distance between two stadiums is just 34 miles, will also help since players will be able to sleep in the same bed and won’t have to travel. In its last World Cup in 2014, the U.S. team traveled 10,758 miles for four games in 18 days.

People gather around the official countdown clock showing the remaining time until the kickoff of the 2022 World Cup.

People gather around the official countdown clock showing remaining time until the kick-off of the 2022 World Cup on Nov. 25 in Doha, Qatar.

(Darko Bandic / Associated Press)

“That is going to make a huge difference,” said Yaya Touré, who played in three World Cups for Ivory Coast and is now a World Cup ambassador.

Even the positives have tradeoffs, though. Ter Stegen wonders if players on teams that go deep in the tournament will have trouble transitioning back to the club environment, with Premier League teams resuming play eight days after the World Cup final.

“I don’t have any experience with it, as everybody else. But I can imagine the one who will win the tournament, it’s the highest moment probably of your life, and then you need to go back to the team and perform immediately,” he said. “I’m curious to see how they will manage, whoever it will be.

“I hope it will be Germany, of course. But then you need to manage your feelings. You need to be mentally super strong. I’m looking forward to see who will lift the trophy and who is able to manage this tricky situation.”

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