In light of the current battle between the major European clubs and the French and Australian federations over players being released for November’s friendly in Melbourne, the uneasy agreement that has existed for a century between countries and clubs may be close to severing. Arsène Wenger and FFF president Claude Simonet seem set to be the chief protagonists in this dispute.
The enormous success of the club-driven Champions League, which accounts for close to 75 per cent of all global football revenue each year, has seen clubs waking up to the fact that they have considerable collective muscle to flex. Clubs risk huge sums in strengthening playing squads, with a cost of failure that can be counted in the tens of millions of pounds. It is understandable that they are protective of their valuable assets. It would be irresponsible to the supporters and shareholders to adopt any other approach.
Clubs are not implacably opposed to international football, only when their goodwill is taken for granted. Unfortunately, the French example is just one of many that sums up all that is wrong with the current system, where the tail wags the dog.
France wants to take its national team to Australia for a friendly, a matter of weeks after a similarly arduous trip to Chile. The clubs affected, and Arsenal in particular, who stand to lose four of their players, see no logical footballing reason for the match. First, the debilitating effect of the travel can only affect the form of the players. Second, why travel so far to play a country whose internationals are all based in Europe anyway?
The bigger picture is one of the conflicting dual roles the FFF now holds. It is meant to be the promoter of French football at all levels, but it is also a thriving business concern with a very valuable commodity on the international market in the shape of the national side. France are believed to attract match fees of up to $1 million, outstripping even what Brazil commanded after the 1994 World Cup. As a result we have the Gallic Harlem Globetrotters, and the fixtures for the France team are based around maximising revenue rather than what is best for the players.
The clubs are right to question motives here. Wenger argues that his responsibility lies with Arsenal and the players themselves, not in filling the coffers of the FFF. He has already played a part in the creation of this fine team in the first place, through the development of previously ignored players like Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira. Now he has to watch someone else benefit from his work, at his expense.
To add insult to injury, Arsenal receive no appearance nor salary compensation from the FFF for availing themselves of £30 million worth of their talent. If they get injured ? Tough luck. Arsenal even bear the responsibility for insuring the players, no slight cost in the post-September 11 insurance markets.
Some might argue that players benefit from such matches. Perhaps in the days when top division “foreign” players in England were called Terry from Wales, or Joe from Scotland, and came without hair or teeth, international matches and the different styles on show were indeed an essential part of the learning experience. This factor has now become redundant with the new order in the European club game. Foreign imports outweigh homegrown players at many clubs, and they are all fed on a weekly diet of Champions League football. Ask yourself whether David Beckham learned more this season experiencing the fluidity of Deportivo or the feebleness of Germany.
The solution lies with FIFA. While it belligerently persists in meritless revenue-grabbing exercises like the Confederations Cup, 18-match South American World Cup qualifying series and mid-season intercontinental friendlies, then we are going to see clubs decide that their interests are being excessively compromised. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and this is a tune FIFA needs to start learning if it wants to retain its position as the focus of the global game. Craig McCracken
“Look how our players performed against Chelsea,” moaned the Arsenal vice-Chairman David Dein after his team’s huge French contingent had come back from their presumably non-economy class trip to play Chile. Er, they didn’t do too badly, David, in fact. Thierry Henry got Arsenal’s goal in a 1-1 away draw with Chelsea, for whom Marcel Desailly, also just back from Chile, played a blinder. L’Arsenal won 3-1 away the next week and, going into November, they had only lost once in the Premiership, on August 21, ten days before the Chile trip.
And now Arsenal & Co are at it again over France’s game in Australia. Never mind that Arsenal don’t play in the Premiership or the Champions League for a full week before or after the November 11 friendly, nor that the fixture was organised a year ago to take place in a FIFA-sanctioned international week. Suddenly it’s a friendly too far. Australia was just as remote a year ago, so why wait until so late in the day before complaining?
Arsène Wenger’s problem is that he has put too many super-fit, twenty-something athletic eggs into the basket labelled “Made in France”. Perhaps he should adapt FIFA’s absurd idea to limit France and Australia to just once player from each club, by only signing one player from each country. After all, Chelsea did that, even extending the principle to English players. Leeds, too, have made a point of searching far and wide. You would have to assume they were aware, before signing them, that Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell might rack up a few Air Miles travelling to Australia’s games – not that Kewell has been a regular traveller anyway.
As for France’s game being meaningless, it clearly isn’t to the Socceroos. They’re building up to a two-leg play-off against a South American team – probably Uruguay – for a place in the World Cup finals. Meanwhile, what else can Roger Lemerre’s France side do but play friendlies? France won the World Cup in 1998, without the poor dears from Highbury having to travel very far, and so they don’t have to dirty their boots playing qualifying fixtures for Korea/Japan.
How are France to defend their title properly if they can’t develop their team to take on the world’s best next June? Sorry Arsenal (and the ten other equally self-centred clubs), that means France playing friendlies. And these friendlies are only really “meaningless” when Lemerre can’t put out his first choice team because you think a week isn’t enough to get over a long haul flight.
The use of the word “meaningless” is becoming almost automatic where matches like this are concerned. Every friendly is meaningless, just as every deflection is wicked, every dive blatant, and every “so” a “very much so”. Some international friendlies undoubtedly are more than a little pointless, but it does the game a disservice to use the label as unthinkingly as it has been with regard to this game. For Lemerre to test his team against a country with heaps to play for as they try to qualify for their first World Cup since 1974 looks like a far-sighted attempt to simulate the genuine competition he lacks.
When Germany scheduled a game in Bangkok for the same November weekend, we may have raised an amused eyebrow at the way they fixed it without first winning the qualifying group, but no one said it would have been a wasted trip. Apart from them, which was the last European team we saw playing friendlies on the other side of the world? Why, a club side of course – Manchester United. Yet there was no whingeing about jet lag near the start of the season.
And what on earth did Liverpool think they were doing, playing Bolton just five days before England’s game in Munich? Good job Michael Owen didn’t do a hamstring in that match. No, he did that later, just before the Greece game. David Seaman was out for Greece as well, and David Beckham only just made it on to the field in Munich. Can you see clubs providing compensation to the FA for the loss of otherwise certain selections like these? Didn’t think so. Andy Gummer
From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month