Could Olympic qualification cause Netherlands to burn out?

How France can learn from playing Spain in the Nations League final (1:12)

Julien Laurens looks ahead to the Women's Nations League final between France and World Champions Spain. (1:12)

When Netherlands take on Germany in the UEFA Nations League third-place playoff on Wednesday, they do so for a chance to qualify for their fourth consecutive summer tournament.

With hosts France and Nations League finalists Spain already ensured of a place at this summer's Olympics, there is one spot open. But it remains to be seen whether qualification would be a good thing for the Dutch.

After the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, 2022 European Championship and 2023 World Cup, if the Oranje make it to the Paris Games and then Euro 2025, they will have played a major international tournament for five years in a row. It would be a unique achievement, but would also take its toll on players, mentally and physically.

Had England progressed to the Nations League semifinals, they could have faced the same quandary -- albeit entering the Olympics as Team GB with a mix of other players from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lionesses captain Leah Williamson, who suffered a serious ACL injury last season, told The Daily Telegraph: "It's horrendous that one of the first things that popped into my head about the [failure to qualify for the] Olympics was, 'At least they'll [the players] probably all get another two or three years on their career now, because they'll get a summer off, everyone needs a rest and now they'll get one.' How horrendous is that?"

Talk of burnout has been rife in women's football for some time, with an increased load of games coming from an accelerated push towards professionalisation and augmented tournaments, and a wave of injuries arriving as a result. Indeed, the new Nations League format was designed to increase competition across Europe in qualifiers and stamp out lopsided scorelines. But it has meant teams have to field their best squads as they face better opponents, allowing for less rotation and integration of fringe players, while causing an increased workload on the regulars.

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England coach Sarina Wiegman said ahead of England's friendly against Austria last week: "When we talk about the calendar from 2025 onwards, this really needs to be solved. It's complex, but for players at the highest level the demands are so high. They need a proper rest in between seasons. Things really need to be changed."

In the men's game, the Olympics is an under-23 tournament (with three overage players allowed in each squad) and lacks the prestige of the women's tournament. In fact, for the women, the Olympics is regarded as the second-biggest tournament. It is seen as a condensed World Cup, featuring a smaller number of teams from the best of FIFA's member associations, but has a harder schedule with short gaps between games. No Olympic champions have ever picked up their gold medal looking fresh. So how can Netherlands cope?

What is the impact on players?

When we talk about five years of potential tournament football, there have of course been changes both in backroom staff and squad personnel. From Wiegman at Tokyo 2021 to Mark Parsons at Euro 2022 to current coach Andries Jonker, who has just one tournament under his belt; the 2023 World Cup.

Then there are only a handful of players who will have featured in all four squads, such as midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk, who notably fought back in time to be fit for Euro 2022, and Lieke Martens, who was injured midway through both that tournament and the 2019 World Cup. But others like captain Sherida Spitse, who missed out on a spot in Tokyo after sustaining an injury in the build up, and record goal-scorer Vivianne Miedema, who was ruled out of the World Cup squad with an ACL injury, had an enforced break.

While Netherlands have tended to have a settled starting XI, the toll of the successive tournaments is felt by all in the squad. Everyone sacrifices their time to rest and recover over the summer in order to play, even after a gruelling domestic season and knowing that a full preseason training schedule awaits them afterward.

Casparij: Busy women's football calendar is not healthy

Dutch defender Kerstin Casparij speaks about the impact of successive summer tournaments in the women's football calendar.

"I think it's quite difficult for me now," 23-year-old defender Kerstin Casparij told ESPN. "Hopefully it's going to be my third year in a row, but knowing that we have the qualifiers as well -- so we've got Euro 2025 qualifiers, we've got the Olympics [and] we had the World Cup, Euro 2022 before that -- I think it's getting more and more intense every year. I think I'll start to worry knowing that we have a lot more years coming up and seeing all the injuries that we have now -- seeing Jill [Roord] most recently.

"It is something we should look at with the clubs, with the national teams and with the players, because obviously we're getting a bit concerned now as well. So hopefully we'll be able to have a good conversation."

Casparij, who only managed 64 minutes of game time across five appearances at the 2023 World Cup, was also keen to highlight the mental strain involved.

"It does a lot," she added. "Having a lot of games in such a short period of time with the travel -- which people don't always think about the travel -- that's hard as well. You can't just go home and rest, you need to travel somewhere and to go back, you need to pack your bags. It's so mentally [draining] as well, so some people are just exhausted and rightfully so. Having gone from, what was it, the Olympics in Tokyo to now and not having a summer off? I don't think it's a healthy thing."

Can anything be done?

Of course, head coaches don't have to push their star players, they have the choice to rotate or call up a less-experienced squad. But they are under pressure to win.

"I'm not willing to do that [to rotate] ahead of the situations because we want to have the best players on the pitch, in the squad, and we want to win" England boss Wiegman said last week. "We want to make the chance of winning as high as possible."

And, as we saw on Friday when Netherlands were beaten 3-0 by Spain in the Nations League playoff semifinals, Jonker went full throttle and put out an experienced, attacking team that was the best he could muster. In the end it was a gamble that didn't pay off, but the coach will undoubtedly have to go back to those same players for the do-or-die against Germany on Wednesday -- albeit without Miedema and Victoria Pelova, who have returned to Arsenal.

The coaches and the players continue to talk about burnout, fatigue and overloading, but all are still willing to give everything to play at these tournaments, even if it's not the best thing for their bodies or minds.

There is no question that the Dutch will give everything they can, just as Germany will put it all on the line in attempt to return to the Olympics for the first time since winning gold at Brazil 2016, because that's what footballers do. No matter how tired they are, no matter how bruised and aching, they fight against their better judgment and push until they have nothing left to give. As England and Bayern Munich midfielder Georgia Stanway said earlier this week: "It is a potential burnout, but we play football, we love football, football is our life. Everything we do is to be successful on the pitch."

Ultimately, it is the governing bodies that hold the keys to change. Between UEFA's introduction of the Nations League and FIFA changing the international match calendar so European teams now have to convene in July for Euro 2025 qualifiers at a time when everyone should be resting, it seems the appetite for increasing games is growing each year.

"I think it starts with the FIFA calendar," Wiegman said last month. "Then of course, it's UEFA, so it starts with the Champions League. If that starts later, if we talk about this summer, the Women's Super League starts a little later. But players can't have rest when you play in the first round of the Champions League. You still can't have proper rest.

"So that starts with UEFA and then, of course, the federations need to adapt to that too, here in Europe when we have a winter competition. If you adapt a little bit, then you can build in some rest for players and that's what we need to do. And I say all the time, we need to stay connected. We need to communicate, we need to have the right people around the table to make the decisions and know what the consequences are of decisions, too."

Jonker has alluded to ESPN that conversations have been ongoing within the Dutch FA (KNVB) about the current schedule and, recently, Nigel de Jong (technical director of the KNVB) has reached out to other member nations as well as FIFA and UEFA to discuss what can be done.

But for now, Jonker has to prepare his side for one final push for Olympic qualification against a Germany side ranked one place above them (6th) in the FIFA World Ranking. The reward for the winner will be a chance to run women's football's most gruelling gauntlet in the summer. If it's his Netherlands side, he will have to hope his players' bodies can take the strain for the fourth year in a row.