It is a mild Friday in December and Germany is entering whole-heartedly into the Christmas Spirit. With just over a week of shopping to go before the big day, the festive markets are buzzing, presents are being wrapped and the nations favourite winter drink, mulled wine, is being knocked back in enormous quantities.
The nation's footballers are also taking a well earned rest. The season that started in July in order to accommodate a good period of recovery before the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine in the summer has now reached the its annual winter break. Following the completion of the games during the penultimate weekend of December, the Bundesliga season will be 17 games old, with exactly half all fixtures completed. It will be almost February when the campaign resumes, over a full month later, for the second half of the campaign.
Meanwhile in England, Christmas marks the busiest time of the year for the country's favourite sport; between the 17th December and 20th January (the dates of the German winter break), Premier League sides will play 5 league fixtures and an FA Cup tie which, if added to the Manchester City and Liverpool's League Cup semi-final, makes up to 7 games that the top sides could be playing over the festive period. This is 10 and a half hours of game time in just one month, and once replays, extra time and penalties have been added to this workload, the pressure on even the most well equipped of squads will begin to show.
A cynic would say that the aforementioned scenario puts much faith in the weather over the coming few weeks. While cancellations due to frozen pitches (in the Premier League at least) are more or less unheard of, the inherent inability of the country to deal with snow will surely lead to some cancellations, a fixture pile-up in the latter stages of the season and the inevitable complaints of England's 2012 hopes being dashed by their players having played too many fixtures.
Germany, like Spain only has one cup competition, the DFB Pokal, which is scaled down by limiting the number of teams and avoiding replays. An indication to the European bewilderment with the FA's domestic system is the term “Die Englische Woche” (The English Week) which is used when a club is intended to play midweek between two league matches, a rare occurrence on the continent. Players and managers imported to England from abroad, most recently Roberto Martinez, have often called for the change to ease the pressure on clubs with shoestring budgets. It is testament to the country's seemingly unerring stance on the matter, that why so many other reforms have come from abroad, the idea of a winter break is considered somewhat left-field.
Due to the failure of the British clubs in Europe this season, the burden will be lightened slightly; while there is still a distinct that both Manchester clubs will be competing in the latter stages of the Europa League this season, it is not thought likely that they will be playing their big stars unless absolutely necessary. Indeed one of the many onlookers rubbing their hands with glee at the demise of the big spending duo would have been Fabio Capello, who can expect his players based in Manchester to feel the benefit of fewer exertions on the continent.
Despite this good fortune, the fact remains that England and the Premier League are far behind the times. No other league in the Europe completes their domestic season without a winter break. Therefore their players are better rested and less prone to burnouts, particularly when post-season tournaments are played in challenging conditions, for example the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Opponents to the concept of a winter break wonder why it is that these lavishly paid young men, some of whom are earning eight figure salaries, cannot fulfil the demands asked of them buy the football season in an age where squad rotation plays an increasingly prominent role. It is a fair point; the 2.64 million unemployed in the country would probably settle for being a little tired at the end of the year for that sort of remuneration.
The answer is effectively the difference between driving a new car (a player who has less demanding schedule) and one that has done 50,00 miles (a player who has not): Whilst the product remains the same, little instances of wear and tear such as niggling hamstrings begin to mount up over time. Put this to the test against the best teams in the world and these little niggles with be ripped wide open by sides with abundant pace such as Germany and Holland or simply ground down by the passing of Spain. However, with the vast number of Spanish internationals playing in the 2011 World Club Championship in Japan, it will be interesting how Spain manages its own exhaustion issues that could be exacerbated by extended runs in the Champions League by Real Madrid and Barcelona.
It is not to say that a winter break would solve all of the English national side's problems at summer tournaments and bring home secure the first silverware on foreign soil, but it would definitely be a start. If nothing else, it removes an excuse from the inevitable post mortem after the heartbreaking exit on penalties in the quarter final, allowing a progression rather than a familiar nightmare of recrimination from which no lessons will be learnt.
Meanwhile, spare a thought for Keith Andrews of Ipswich Town. If playing a 38 game season and two cups without a break could be seen as a hindrance, the situation for any Championship players looking to make an impression with the Irish team is even more ridiculous. To play a minimum of 48 games in one season followed by a European competition, which was always going to be an uphill struggle, is something that the more sophisticated European Leagues simply can't contemplate. 48 games (49 in Leagues 1 and 2) also puts an unrealistic financial pressure on fans who are desperate to see their team play away wherever they play. For the particularly small clubs it means cutting corners with preparations for long away trips, long bus journeys and travelling to grounds by private car on the day of the game. For professional athletes, this is not an ideal situation and a smaller league would probably make better fiscal and sporting sense in the long term.
Traditionalists argue that the Boxing Day game is an important part of the English footballing culture and heritage, something that can never be taken away from the sporting calendar at such a special time of the year for families. It is a compelling defence that pulls at the heartstrings of any football fan that can remember the truly special atmospheres that these games brought in years gone by. The snow, the orange ball, the high scoring games and the hot Bovril at half time are sights, smells and experiences that add to the magic.
However, they could bring back the same nostalgia about terracing, endless replays in the F.A Cup and England internationals at the Old Wembley. These were traditions that had to be scrapped because they were out of date and football needed to move on. Perhaps it is time the Boxing Day fixture went that way as well.