Much heat and little light have been expended in recent weeks over the length of the football season, with especial reference to England’s European Championship qualifier against Slovakia on June 11.
The whingeing about the length of time between the end of the Premiership season and the match has had a familiar insular edge. League seasons continued all over Europe, the cup finals in Italy, Germany and France among others only took place on the last day of May, three days after the Champions League concluded: the qualifiers could not take place any earlier.
It is the English who are out of step with much of the rest of the continent, but often talk as if it is the other Europeans who are out of step with us.
Of course, these qualifying matches – from which Spain-based players will return for two more league games – are not the end of the international season. On June 18, New Zealand play Japan at the Stade de France to start the Confederations Cup. The eight-nation tournament, spread across 12 days in Paris, Saint- Etienne and Lyon, is understandably greeted with great scepticism.
Invented largely to satisfy FIFA power- brokers’ need to be loved, the Confederations Cup has therefore achieved the precise opposite. “It should not take place, not this summer, not at all,” said Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon, speaking in February at the European Clubs Forum, at which it was suggested that clubs might refuse to release players, a threat that was not followed through. UEFA’s Lennart Johansson has said that European teams won’t take part after the next competition, due for Germany in 2005.
But there are nonetheless footballing reasons for the event, for giving it a chance this summer. In past decades when ocean travel could take weeks, one World Cup every four years was quite enough; these days, when you can fly to Rio almost on a whim, it seems slightly perverse there is so little opportunity for global competitive international football.
International friendlies are increasingly devalued, with the focus more and more on preparation for the next qualifying game rather than the night itself. There are too few meaningful matches played across continental boundaries.
The habit of inviting sides from the wrong side of the Panama Isthmus to the Copa America and Gold Cup is a small step, but the Confederations, treated as a sporting event and not an ego-boosting marketing wheeze, goes further.
These are New Zealand’s most significant matches since Spain 82. Japan, the United States and Turkey want to prove that their performances at last year’s World Cup were not one-offs. Cameroon and to an even greater extent France will want to prove that events in the Far East were one-offs. Colombia never made it to Korea/Japan and will want to atone. Brazil, where managers can lose their jobs for not winning the World Cup with sufficient style, are always worth watching.
Scheduling is, of course, a problem. The Confederations Cup will eat into players’ summer breaks and with more thought – ensuring none of the entrants had a match on the second of the Euro 2004 qualifying dates – it could have started six days earlier. But if it wasn’t for Sars then assorted clubs would be off to the Far East in mid-July. And the four extra league games Premiership chairmen insist on serve less purpose, too.
The tournament can give valuable experience to countries about to host more significant competitions and as such just replaces games that would have happened anyway – for South Korea and Japan in 2001 and the Germans next time out it is a souped-up version of England’s Umbro Cup the year before Euro 96 and the 1997 Tournoi de France.
Gone, too, are the days when the invite list was filled with replacements – six continental champions, plus the World Cup winners and third-placed team, will be in France. Most importantly, it also represents England’s best hope of playing in a major tournament. Reliable sources at the FA say the plan for 2005 is to turn up in Munich claiming to represent British Antarctic Territory.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month