Arsenal exhibition match raises questions over women’s football schedule

Arsenal's players pose for a team photo with the trophy as they celebrate their win after the English Women's League Cup final
Arsenal's players pose for a team photo with the trophy as they celebrate their win after the English Women's League Cup final on March 31, 2024. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Arsenal will become the first Women’s Super League team to play in an exhibition match in Australia against Melbourne City. The Gunners have traveled down under to face the A-League All-Stars Women on May 24th as part of a Global Football Week in Melbourne.

While there is no doubt the fixture will do wonders for the progression of women’s football in Australia — and on the back of the Matildas’ run at their home World Cup in 2023 — there have been concerns arising. Since Arsenal announced the exhibition match, many worry it’s just another link in the chain of a far too overbearing schedule in the sport. It’s a chain already plagued by so many injuries in recent months.

Many fans have rejoiced over the heights that Arsenal have reached this season. Achieving continued record-breaking crowds at the Emirates, the huge hype around their exclusive Stella McCartney away kit, and placing third in the Women’s Super League.

Arsenal are spearheading massive advances in the game and the exhibition match marks another huge milestone. Aussie stars Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley and Kyra Cooney-Cross will appear on home soil for their club before heading to the Olympics. The club also announced the involvement of Lioness Alessia Russo and the Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe, despite Euro 2025 qualifiers just around the corner.

England stars Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Lotte Wubben-Moy are absent and most likely resting in preparation for the international games. But participating players jetted off just two days after the end of the WSL season. It’s a time when some players might have enjoyed a break between the end of the league and the international qualifiers scheduled in May and June.

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Injuries rife in women’s football

The epidemic of ACL injuries in particular has been sweeping across women’s teams worldwide. As a result, it has gained undeniable media attention over the past 12 months. Most notably, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema took centre stage in a documentary about their own experiences with the injury and their recoveries, aiming to campaign for more research and awareness.

Williamson was added to the list of Gunners who tore their ACLs during the 2022/23 season. There were an astonishing four players within six months to pick up the injury.

Williamson has since spoken out about the importance of scheduling, which takes their physical and mental well-being into consideration. This comes as medical researchers link increased workload and expectations of players to the surge in ACL ruptures.

Ultimately, the schedule is well on its way to becoming unsustainable and poses dangers to the athletes if organisers don’t make mindful revisions.

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Are schedules becoming too tight?

After a painful end to the Women’s World Cup last summer, the Lionesses will be hoping for some success in proceeding to the Euros in 2025 to defend their victory.

This exhibition match could have put some of England’s star players — including Williamson and Mead, who were forced to miss the World Cup — in a less-than-ideal position to perform at their best due to the incredibly short timeframe. However, it seems that some of the international managers may have had their say in the bad timing of the match and urged Arsenal to rest their players in anticipation of the Euro qualifiers. Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius, Austria’s Manuela Zinsberger and Switzerland’s Lia Wälti are also among those missing from the squad.

So, it poses a question. Why have Arsenal made the arguably unnecessary decision to add to the players’ already hectic schedule? Is it a grab for money, or an ill-conceived (albeit sincere) attempt to grow the sport worldwide?

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