International relations

Should international friendlies be cast on to the football scrapheap?

The new England shirts, launched at the end of March, have “anatomically eng­ineered moisture management pan­elling”, which is another way of saying lots of small holes, ideal no doubt for play­ing in hot weather. Whether England will need to use them in a certain international tournament next summer is, of course, far from certain. However, a qual­i­fication failure by England wouldn’t dis­please the clubs employing three of the four players, Michael Owen, David Beck­ham and Rio Ferdinand, who mod­elled the new strip.

On the day after the fashion show, the BBC broadcast a doc­umentary, Club or Country?, that exam­ined the long-run­ning dispute between the major clubs and the international federations over whose interests take precedence with regard to players. “They work for us first and foremost,” says David Dein, speaking in his role as vice-chairman of Arse­nal rather than FA councillor.

Oddly, the documentary made no di­rect reference to Arsenal’s membership, together with Liverpool and Man Utd, of the inaccurately named G14. As we know, this association of, currently, 18 clubs greatly enjoy playing one another in Euro-pean competition every year and moan incessantly about their players’ national team commitments.

Unless there is a re­duction in international fixtures, Dein foresees a “total rev­olution” soon with “clubs prepared to flex their muscles and say they are not going to release players”. Some might say that muscles are being flexed very effectively already, the latest example being Eng­land’s use of 22 players for their re­cent friendly with Australia.

Sven-Göran Erik­sson has denied be­ing placed under pres­sure by the clubs, in­sisting that “if I can have all the players for 45 minutes that’s perfect for me”. If we are to accept Sir Alex Ferguson’s re­cent claims about Eriksson having talks last year about be­coming his successor, the England man­ager might have his own reasons for not aggravating Man Utd. But even if that is not the case, Eriksson’s multiple substitutions for the Aus­tralia match and previous friendlies has only strengthened the case of clubs – the more meaningless friendlies be­come, the stronger the case for doing away with them altogether.

This seems to be excercising the mind of FIFA president Sepp Blatter who, speak­ing in Club or Country?, described the Australia game as “a farce” and said he intended to introduce a rule limiting the number of substitutes permitted in friendlies to five. Eriksson’s dry response after the broadcast – “It’s nice to hear the president of FIFA talking about football, that’s very good” – reflects understandable cynicism about Blatter’s general out­look. He isn’t worried about mean­ingless games per se, otherwise FIFA would not be staging the Confederations Cup this summer, nor insisting that the second club world championship will go ahead in 2006, six years after the first one when Man Utd were allowed to drop out of the FA Cup in favour of a trip to Brazil.

What troubles FIFA is that the major clubs, with their own TV channels and their megastores in the Far East, are be­coming supranational teams; the Cham­­pions League, and whatever else the G14 might like to create, may yet sup­ersede flagship competitions like the World Cup (“mostly quite boring” ac­cording to Arsè­ne Wenger in Club or Country?).

As ever, it all comes down to mon­ey. UEFA stand to make £360 mil­lion from the broadcast rights to Euro 2004. FIFA make considerably more (all of it no doubt properly distributed) from the World Cup, and may try to ensure further that countries representing lucrative TV markets don’t miss out by ex­panding it to 36 teams for 2006.

The G14 clubs have been discussing income from television too, with mounting concern. At its annual congress at the end of March, UEFA announced that TV networks are set to pay £100 million less next season for their Champ­ions League coverage, partly due there being fewer games with the second group stage scrap­ped, but also because of perceived market saturation.

Speaking at the UEFA congress, Da­vid Dein said that the clubs “will just have to grin and bear it” which may explain why Arsenal, already facing escalating construction costs for their new stadium, appear to be taking a strong stance in their contract negotiations with Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. Chairman Peter Hill-Wood has even said that Arsène Wenger may have an annual transfer bud­get of “only” £10 million, above what is raised in sales, over the next three years.

Wage costs notwithstanding, the major clubs know that star players are vital assets to their “brand”. If some such assets find themselves unable to heed inter­national call-ups in the future, so much the better. It’s going to get nastier yet. 

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month