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During the year preceding the 2014 World Cup, the World Players' Union FIFPro – representing more than 65,000 professional footballers worldwide – has mentioned repeatedly its concerns about the extreme heat conditions at several venues in Brazil, especially Manaus and Fortaleza.

In addition, FIFPro was concerned that more than 50% of the World Cup matches were programmed in daylight conditions during the afternoon. It is well known that exercising in extreme heat conditions – the combination of high ambient temperature, high air humidity and sun exposure – have been related to heat-stress disorders as well as to decrease in performances [Mohr 2010; Özgünen 2010; Wilmore 2007].

In order to minimize the effect of extreme heat conditions on players' health and performance, FIFA applied their heat-related guidelines [FIFA Football Medicine Manual 2009]. Conformingly, cooling breaks lasting 3 to 4 minutes at approximately the 30 minute of each halve would be introduced in matches played when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) was above 32°C (synonymous to extreme risk for thermal injury according to FIFA's guideline). During the 2014 World Cup, the FIFA guidelines allowed such cooling breaks only in two matches: the Netherlands-Mexico that was played in Fortaleza, and Switzerland-Honduras in Manaus. This seemed a bit peculiar to the general public: several other matches were played at Fortaleza and Manaus, places known for their challenging weather conditions. The question arises whether the FIFA guidelines might be a bit stringent.

Guidelines vs. heat conditions in Manaus and Fortaleza

To prevent the occurrence of heat-stress disorders during training and competitions, international sports experts have established and published guidelines referring to the WBGT, which is a composite temperature calculated from several relevant parameters such as ambient temperature, humidity, sun exposure or wind speed. When it comes to exercise and medical sciences, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has been at the forefront of the advancement in a wide range of medical specializations and scientific disciplines, while the Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) has evolved over the past 50 years to become a multidisciplinary organization established to provide medical support for athletes in competitions [Kenihan 2014]. Consequently, and because of their experience with heat conditions in the United States and Australia, the ACSM and SMA heat-related guidelines might be considered as a gold standard [Armstrong et al. 2007]. Depending on the WBGT values and on the type of exercise i.e. sport performed (continuous activity and competition vs. training and non-continuous activity), these guidelines (as well as the FIFA guidelines) assessed the risk related to such an exercise and give recommendations to prevent the harm of athletes' health. When looking at the climate estimations given to Manaus and Fortaleza (based on the previous 50 years), one can conclude that the ACSM and SMA guidelines are more protective for athletes than the FIFA guidelines (Table 1).

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To present time, FIFPro is not aware of the reason why the cut-off values applied in the FIFA guidelines differ with others. One could argue that the application of other guidelines such as those of the ACSM or SMA during the World Cup might have led to more cooling breaks (for instance during the match England vs Italy in Manaus with estimated WBGT of 29-31°C), to better level of fitness of the players, and to better performances. But did the heat conditions in Brazil really affect the performances of the players?

FIFPro's survey

Following the 2014 World Cup, FIFPro conducted a short survey to explore the thoughts of both players and managers about the extreme warm weather conditions (high air temperature and high level of humidity) in Brazil. Therefore, both captains and managers of the national teams that had played in venues where the weather conditions were the most critical, were invited to participate.

Scientific note

From a scientific point of view, the results mentioned here after can not be generalised because of the qualitative rather than quantitative approach applied (< 10 participants).

Players

Team captains unanimously mentioned that the extreme hot weather conditions in Brazil made it more difficult for themselves and their teammates to perform as well as usual in normal weather conditions. With regard to the cooling breaks potentially applied when the WBGT is above 32°C, around 50% of the team captains thought that this measure was adequate for players to drink/hydrate sufficiently during a match. The large majority of the players stated that cooling breaks lasting 3 to 4 minutes at approximately the 30 minute mark of each match halve were preferable to cooling breaks every 15 minutes (scientifically shown as optimal to drink/hydrate sufficiently during exercising in extreme hot weather conditions).

Managers

As team captains, managers unanimously stated that the extreme hot weather conditions in Brazil made it more difficult for their players to perform as well as usual in normal weather conditions. Nevertheless, only a minority of the national team managers did take the extreme weather conditions into account in Brazil when choosing their starting 11 players or their tactical plan.

FIFPro looking forward to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

The heat conditions in June/July in Qatar are by far more extreme than in the same period in Brazil. All football stakeholders are agreed that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar cannot be hold in natural conditions* in the summer because of the extreme heat conditions (daily WBGT reaching up to 37°C).

The question arises in which other month(s) the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should take place from a health and safety perspective. FIFA has acknowledged the winter months as potential alternative, while the European Club Association (ECA) has recently proposed May as an optimal solution.

With regard to the climate estimations in Qatar (based on the previous 50 years) presented in Table 2, FIFPro, from a health and safety perspective, would condemn a 2022 World Cup in May and would recommend that a winter 2022 World Cup in Qatar should rather take place in the months January or February (lowest estimated WBGT), scheduling all matches in overcast conditions in the late afternoon or evening (not before 17:00 pm).

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Blog by Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge PhD.
Former professional football player, FIFPro Chief Medical Officer

 

 

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