Football: Blatter plan is under attack

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The Independent Online
AS THE two most powerful men in world football started a verbal scrap yesterday over the future of the World Cup, England's leading players' representative said the game was in danger of "chucking players over a cliff" and ending careers prematurely through too much football.

Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, world football's governing body, said over the weekend he would like to see the World Cup, currently played every four years, become a biennial event. He added yesterday he would not expect his plans to be in place before 2008 - because the bidding process for the 2006 tournament, which involves England, is already under way - but fanned the flames of controversy by saying there could be a taste of the future as early as 2004 with a scaled down World Cup to celebrate Fifa's centenary.

Lennart Johansson, who lost out to Blatter in last year's Fifa presidency election and is now the president of Uefa, European football's governing body, came out firmly against his rival's proposals. He pointed out that 2004 was also Uefa's 50th anniversary and it would soon announce the host for that year's European championship.

"I find the idea of a World Cup in the same year unacceptable," Johansson said. "The proposal to organise a World Cup every two years has not been officially submitted to the Fifa executive, and the confederations, who would be strongly affected by it, were certainly never informed or consulted."

The matter is likely to come to a head within the next two months when Fifa's Strategic Studies Committee, which proposes changes to international football competitions, meets in Zurich before the next Fifa Executive Committe meeting on 11-12 March. Blatter is the chairman of the SSC, Johannson is the deputy chairman and the other five members on the seven-man decision making team represent a variety of views in the world game.

If Blatter's dream comes to fruition it would force the European championships, currently held every four years, to become a biennial event and reduce it to a virtual World Cup qualifying competition. The South American and African championships are held every two years while Asia's leading nation is effectively decided every two years by the Asian Cup and Asian Games football tournament, but Uefa is determined to avoid joining them and has plenty of support.

"A World Cup is something to look forward to," Sir Bobby Charlton, a leading figure in England's 2006 bid, said. "Waiting for it increases the value of it. A change to every two years would be very sad. I just hope it's not based on finance."

Ger Stolk, spokesman for the Dutch FA, which will co-host Euro 2000, said: "We think it would be very tough from a medical point of view. There are already complaints about the demands on players."

Stolk's views were echoed by Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. "We'll be looking at a 12-month season," he said, speculating on the possible consequences of playing a major international tournament every year.

"It's like lemmings, chucking our players over a cliff. It might get to the point where we'll have no players left or they'll all be playing patched up."

The scenario where some players would be expected to compete in annual league programmes, domestic cup competitions and European club competitions, as well as in biennial World Cup and European Championship tournaments, would be "ridiculous" Taylor said.

"It's only going to shorten a player's career," he added. "It's up to the authorities like the FA and ourselves to say `we need a breathing space.' If we can't have the whole of June blocked off, or at least one month, ideally in the summer, we need to look at the football passport idea [where limits are set on the total amount of games each footballer can play per year]."

Taylor added that fit and healthy players no longer seem to be a priority. "We're getting patched up players not playing at their best. We've got to start looking after them."

Fifa denied yesterday that Blatter's proposals would impose too many demands on players and added the plans would simply help feed demand.

"We see every four years at the World Cup what an enormous appetite the global football public has for competition of this kind," a statement said. "The finances generated by the event would help the national associations in their continuing efforts to promote football at all levels, to achieve a better balance with the major clubs in a handful of western European countries."

Blatter, who as the Fifa president and chairman of the Strategic Studies Committee, is in the position to impose his will, said: "We are going to get down to consulting the national associations as soon as possible. Personally, I believe in it strongly and will put all my energy into bringing this reform about."

FIFA'S SUPER 7

This is Fifa's Strategic Studies Committee - the seven men who could change the future of the world's biggest sporting event when they meet in Zurich before the next Fifa executive meeting in March:

Chairman: Sepp Blatter (Fifa president).

Deputy chairman: Lennart Johansson (Uefa president).

Other committee

members:

Issa Hayatou (Cameroon FA).

Jack Warner (Trinidad FA)

Charles Dempsey

(New Zealand FA).

Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay FA)

Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah (Malaysia FA).

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