MANCHESTER, England —With their six-figure weekly salaries, flashy cars, plush houses and supermodel wives and girlfriends, sympathy is usually in short supply when it comes to players in the English Premier League.
Except, maybe, over the Christmas and New Year period.
When you are sitting down to a big dinner and spending time with the family over the festive period, spare a thought for the likes of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Sergio Aguero.
They’ll most likely be practicing in the freezing cold. Or maybe on a bus traveling the length and breadth of England (and Wales, for that matter). Or stuck in a hotel room with only a TV for company.
While the top leagues across Europe shut for two weeks or more at the end of each year, there’s no winter break for the hardy souls of the Premier League.
British soccer persists with that proud, unique – some call it downright weird – tradition of piling up the matches over the festive period. Players at Arsenal and Chelsea, for example, will play four games in 10 days from Dec. 23 through Jan 1.
“It’s a period where I think only the brave can survive, because it’s hard,” Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho says. “At Christmas, the accumulation of matches is so high. You must do it with a special group with a special mentality, enjoying the situation and forgetting you don’t have a Christmas like the Spanish players, the Italian players, the German players.”
Mourinho says he missed being part of England’s hectic schedule when he left Chelsea in 2007 to manage first in Italy with Inter Milan and then in Spain with Real Madrid. But it certainly isn’t to every foreigner’s liking.
Take Marcel Desailly, for example. He arrived at Chelsea from AC Milan in 1998, the year he won the World Cup with France, and soon discovered Christmas would no longer be the same.
“I thought it wasn’t fair,” Desailly said. “Christmas Day should not be a day for football. When you believe in something, you shouldn’t have to do it, even for the good of the football and the business of football.
“I was coming from a Latin country where with Christmas, all the (religious) beliefs at that moment were particularly strong. There was no reason to play on that day, even if it was the culture.”
Desailly can count himself fortunate he wasn’t playing in Britain in the 1950s – in those days, English clubs played on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day (Dec. 26). More recently, teams in the Scottish leagues played on Christmas Day in 1976.
For players these days that’s no longer the case, but it doesn’t mean Christmas Day isn’t ruined for them. There’s often training in the morning and a long coach journey if you are unlucky enough to be playing away Dec. 26.
“I remember a couple of Christmases when I was at Sunderland, we had to go down to Southampton two years in a row,” former Arsenal and Manchester City striker Niall Quinn said recalling journeys from the north of England to the very south. “I can remember skidding my car on ice and having to get my in-laws to get me out of a ditch so I could get to training on Christmas Day. Then I get back home and the coach was leaving at 3 p.m. to go down to Southampton. Christmas was obliterated in many respects.”
Quinn recalls some foreign teammates not knowing there were matches then and making plans to go home for Christmas.
“They thought they were getting their leg pulled in the dressing room that there were four games over Christmas,” he said. “It’s a bit of a culture shock for some.”
There’s no rest for stadium staff and club officials, either. Managers have to work overtime, too, rotating their squads and dealing with injuries.
For fans, though, Christmas soccer is the highlight of the year. Twelve points are up for grabs in a little more than a week, a frenetic period that can shape a season and provide momentum for the second half of the campaign.
“It’s unique. Generally the stadium is full and it’s usually a brilliant occasion,” Quinn said.
So who cares if it harms England’s chances of success in World Cups and European Championships? Who cares if it causes endless family feuds, with many fans preferring a trip to a match than to their in-laws?
Just sit back and enjoy the uniqueness of English soccer over Christmas.