It seems that professional football (or soccer in the United States) players competing for their clubs in the lead-up to major international tournaments such as the World Cup, and therefore having reduced opportunities to taper, are among those most likely to underperform (Ekstrand et al. 2004). Most major international tournaments take place at the end of a long club-level competitive season. In an attempt to elicit players’ peak performance, some nations decide to advance their domestic competition calendar to allow the players to rest and rebuild their fitness to compete for their national teams. A different approach is to delay the end of the domestic season so that the players are still in a competitive shape when they join their national squad. Both strategies have pros and cons, and the scarce scientific literature available is not conclusive regarding the optimal approach to peaking for a major tournament.
Bangsbo and colleagues (2006) recently described the preparation program of the Danish national football team for the 2004 European Championship. After the club season, the players rested for 1 to 2 weeks before preparing for the championship. The preparation lasted 18 days divided into two 9-day phases.
The amount of high-intensity exercise was similar in both phases (i.e., training intensity was maintained), whereas the total amount of training was reduced in the second phase (i.e., training volume was tapered). This is in agreement with previous tapering recommendations based on studies from individual sport athletes (Mujika and Padilla 2003a).
The authors emphasized that because of large individual differences among players in the amount of high-intensity work performed during the tactical components of the training sessions, a careful evaluation of individual physical training load is essential, even during training time not specifically dedicated to fitness development.
Ferret and Cotte (2003) reported on the differences in preparation of the French national football team in the lead-up to the World Cups of 1998 and 2002. The former World Cup campaign saw Les Bleus taking home the valued trophy. Four years later, an almost identical group of players returned home sooner than expected, after a disappointing qualifying round without a single victory and not scoring a single goal. According to these authors, in 1998 the team had enough time and biological resources prior to the qualifying round to further develop the athletic qualities of the players through two solid training phases followed by a 2-week tapering phase, characterized by high-intensity training situations (friendly games) and a moderate training volume, which allowed players to eliminate the negative effects of training (fatigue) while maintaining the adaptations previously achieved. In contrast, in 2002 all players were only available to the national team 8 days prior to the beginning of competition, and medical and biochemical markers indicated that most players were severely fatigued after the club season. In those conditions, the technical staff could not carry out a development training phase followed by a taper to peak the physical qualities of the players prior to the World Cup (Ferret and Cotte 2003).
The reports just described suggest that an ideal approach to peak for a major international tournament would start several weeks before the first game, with an initial recovery after the club season, followed by rebuilding, and finishing with a pretournament taper characterized by low training volume and high-intensity activities.
Nevertheless, there are examples of successful unorthodox approaches that challenge these ideas about optimal preparation. For instance, the Danish national football team unexpectedly won the 1992 European Championship after the team was invited to compete 10 days before the beginning of the tournament, because of the last-minute exclusion of Yugoslavia from the championship. By then, half the Danish players had already finalized their participation in various European leagues and had been out of training for 3 to 5 weeks, whereas the other half were still competing in the Danish domestic championship. All players were only available to the coaching staff 6 days before the first game. The team’s success has been partly attributed to the fact that players were not physically and psychologically exhausted, as is often the case after long and tough domestic and international club seasons followed by a long national team preparation and a demanding international tournament (Bangsbo 1999).