France may be without their spine at the World Cup, and they won’t be alone


Varane (center) is helped up by his teammates.

© Photo: Getty Images Varane (center) is helped up by his teammates.

Crowbarring a World Cup into the middle of the club season in winter was always a dumb idea, probably equal to the idea that the tournament ever could have been held in the summer in Qatar, which is what the country and FIFA were originally selling when they awarded it to Qatar (and it was literally for sale). Actually though, that idea contained the fantasy of floating air conditioning devices over the stadiums, so I guess that idea was dumber.

Anyway, the mutation of pretty much every domestic club season, as well as the tighter window that the World Cup will now be played in, has just made for a very awkward season that will only get more and more odd-looking and feeling from here on out and for the months after the trophy is hoisted in Doha. And of course, there’s the whole “thousands of migrant workers have died” so a few unfathomably rich oil execs can be even more rich,” thing, as well as basically sanctioning the anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ+ policies of the Qatari government. Compared on that scale, a few players missing the tournament through injury seems a bit peanut-like.

But that’s our charge today, and yesterday France watched between their fingers as yet another player who would start in the middle of the field for them looked to have put himself out of the tournament. Raphael Varane pulled up against Chelsea and was reduced to tears as he realized what he thought the severity of the injury was and that it would mean he would miss the World Cup. Reports today are more hopeful that he might only miss most of the group stage, but that’s still less than ideal. Especially for a French team that is definitely going to be without N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, the control center of the team that won the last edition of this tournament (though they were also there when most of the nation of France and good portion of his teammates blamed Pogba for their exit from Euro 2020).

Losing a starting central defender that goes behind them would have been a lot for France, even if they’re maybe one of three or four international sides that has so much talent they might have been able to stem the tide. France could probably just turn to the Real Madrid duo of Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga and feel pretty ok, but clearly their depth will be tested. Even if Varane makes it back, he won’t have played in a month and will have a balky hamstring, which puts a lot of pressure on say William Saliba or Dayot Upamecano, two players who are unquestionably gifted but also untested at the highest level.

But France are hardly alone. Just in the past few weeks, Portugal lost Diogo Jota, usually a nailed-on starter in their forward line. England could and probably will be without the right side of their defense in Reece James and Kyle Walker. Argentina could be missing Pablo Dybala and Angel Di Maria, at least for part of the tournament for the latter. Gini Wijnaldum broke his leg and won’t show up for the Netherlands. Mexico will go without Jesus Corona. Senegal won’t have Bouna Sarr. This list could go on, and there’s still a month of leagues trying to cram in as many games as they can before the extended break for this list to get a lot longer. The schedule is punishing and quite frankly, unfair to the players.

That’s not to say injuries aren’t a part of every World Cup. Tired players in April and May after a full-season’s worth of miles on the odometer pull up or have something go “twang!” all the time, and the usual three weeks to a month between the end of the season and when a World Cup would usually start isn’t enough to save them. One can recall a devastated Mo Salah during the Champions League final in 2018 after Sergio Ramos nearly succeeded in tearing his arm off, as he realized he might miss out on Egypt’s stay in Russia (he missed the first two games). But those three weeks do provide far more of a buffer than the seven days or so of this tournament.

More importantly, those three weeks do give players far more time for smaller injuries and fatigue to clear up, though the overall toll of a nine-month season still weighs pretty heavily on them during any summer tournament. But those players that have just a small calf problem or are just a little heavy in the legs get enough time to see those go away before a big tournament. For this one, whatever caused a player to be brought off in the 65th minute away to Wolves or Getafe one weekend will still be very much there when they suit up a week later for their country. And given that the tournament is being crunched itself, and the group stage will basically be eight or nine days long for most teams instead of 10 or 12, those injuries are only going to get worse. Which means depth will be tested even more than usual, which is why a team like France would be sweating pretty heavily over the Varane news.

So not only do we have all the above-mentioned issues with this Qatar World Cup, but we might get something of a bog-monster of a tournament, depending on how healthy anyone and everyone can stay. It might not be a test of who has the best team or the most cohesive plan but simply who can remain upright. And of course, whatever happens in Qatar for these players will have immediate effects for their clubs right on the back of the World Cup, where normally there would be a month or six weeks before a club season would start.

Seems like a great plan all around to do it this way. 

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