Sam Wallace: Leave international friendlies alone – but give this wretched Europa League the boot

 

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The Independent Online

Here's one in the eye for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the man who wants to cut back international football, until we are left with two friendlies every two years: England have never played more games in one season in the modern era than they did in the 1965-66 season.

That is not because in July 1966 England went all the way to the World Cup final and won it. Between 2 October 1965 and 5 July 1966, England played 12 games. By way of comparison, in the last World Cup season, 2009-10, the team played only nine games before the tournament. In the 1995-96 season, leading up to Euro 1996, the only other major international tournament that England has hosted, the team played just eight games.

"We respect that there are qualifiers and final tournaments, but we do not accept that we still have nonsense dates," Rummenigge said last week. But the international season is not expanding, it just seems that way. And it seems that way because the club season has expanded to fill every last godforsaken space in the fixture calendar.

Over the last decade, the number of games the England team has played each season has changed very little. There are spikes in the graph in tournament years (15 games in 2001-02; 13 in 2003-04; 14 in 2005-06; 13 in 2009-10) but otherwise it stays between nine and 11 games a season. There has not been a non-tournament season of 12 England games since 1990-91, when Graham Taylor took the team on tour to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. If the Football Association tried to pull a stunt like that now, the Premier League would probably close it down.

Yet, Rummenigge's vision for football – supported by the major English clubs, it should be said – will affect the FA profoundly. Its business plan for Wembley is based on revenue from England friendlies that would be cut to two every two years under the proposals put forward by the European Club Association.

It should be said that the FA does not take liberties when it comes to internationals. It could play many more. For example, the FA turned down an international date before the Switzerland game in June and will do so again next month when England will play just one game (the Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro). Unfortunately, it is national federations like Brazil and Argentina who milk it by flying their players all over the world in pursuit of sponsors' money.

But the real culprits in terms of football overkill are not the national federations. Rather they are the architects of European domestic competition, or more specifically the wretched Europa League, the bastard offspring of the much nobler European Cup-Winners' Cup and Uefa Cup. The group stages of the Europa League start this week, although it will be a long time before it gets remotely interesting.

With apologies to Stoke City and Birmingham City, who no doubt are very excited about the prospect of European football (Tottenham and Fulham possibly less so), this is a ludicrous competition. It is so big and takes so long that it is destined to become the football equivalent of the paint job on the Forth Bridge. By that I mean that one day, even before we reach the final in May, the pre-qualifying for the following season will already have begun.

The Europa League has already involved 186 teams this season and that is before you add the eight who will come in from the Champions League group stages and straight into the Europa League knockout round. Not to forget the 10 losers from the Champions League play-offs who have already dropped down. Confused? Or couldn't care less?

It promises a dreary traipse to the final in Bucharest on 9 May for a cup that no one really wants to win, because most of the clubs involved scarcely have the resources to play on Thursdays as well as in their domestic competitions. But most of all it is guilty of that offence no cup competition should commit: it is boring.

The last English team to win the Uefa Cup in its pre-Champions League format were Tottenham Hotspur in 1984. They played six two-leg ties in all, in a rattling good knockout competition from start to finish, beating Drogheda, Feyenoord, Bayern Munich, Austria Vienna, Hajduk Split and Anderlecht. The only flaw in the format was the two-leg final – good riddance to that – but otherwise it was ideal.

Even Liverpool, the last English winners of the Uefa Cup, played only 13 games in 2000-01. This year Spurs would have to play 16 games to reach the final. Fulham, who went into the first qualifying round, will have played 22 games if they reach the final. That is not a knockout competition. That is more than half a league season.

In 1984, Spurs were obliged to play four more league games in the old 22-team First Division than they do now, but domestic fixtures are much easier to fulfil than foreign awaydays. How many games did England play in the 1983-84 season? The answer is 11, the same as they played in each of the three seasons from 2006 to 2009. The number of England internationals played – friendly or competitive – has stayed much the same. It is the clubs who play more.

If Rummenigge and the rest of the bullies in the ECA have their way, then England will be playing two friendlies every two-year cycle and the poor sod in charge of the team will have even less chance to decide whether he should be playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and who can hack it at international level.

My modest proposal to the clubs would be to cut back on their endless Europa League and turn it into a knockout tournament again. It would be a bold move, given the uncertainty for the big clubs, but one that would make it much more worth watching – and winning – and would distinguish it from the equally predictable Champions League group stages.

But I get the feeling that when it comes to lightening the load in fixtures the bloated Europa League will be left well alone and it will be international football, weakened by its corrupt leaders in Fifa, that will be feeling the pinch.

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