Football: Club game threatens international football

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The Independent Online
WITHIN REACH of the machine that is mispelling these words lies a newspaper report that follows on from a question put last week to Arsene Wenger, after Arsenal had been held at home by Southampton.

What it does, and in no uncertain terms, is reaffirm Wenger's previously expressed view that there is now far too much international football.

Recalling that he had spoken strongly on television about the difficulties in preparation imposed by the absence of 15 players for 12 days because of international commitments, describing it as "ridiculous," I asked him to go into this in more detail.

Arsenal's manager went on to assert that some of the fixtures that interrupted normal service here and elsewhere in Europe ought not to have been taking place. "Matches against small countries like Andorra, the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg have no meaning and are of little interest," he said.

An injury sustained when turning out for France against Andorra caused Emmanuel Petit to miss the Southampton match and last night's Champions' League game against Dynamo Kiev at Wembley. "That's what I mean," Wenger added. "The clubs pay the players but we have to put up with the possibility of them returning injured or tired from games I couldn't be bothered to watch. If there is a case for including small countries, there should be a divisional championship, like in tennis."

Wenger has gone further, suggesting this week that international football may be in terminal decline. "The best players in the world are now with the leading clubs, playing with and against each other in big matches, so where is the thrill in being an international any more? I find the World Cup interesting, but that is about all. And the interest will lessen unless we get around to a Continental competition. Europe against the Americas or Africa."

Franz Beckenbauer expressed similar views during the World Cup FOREIGNs, predicting that even the game's flagship competition would be left behind by the rapid development of club football. "I can see a time, not that far into the future, when all the biggest games will be between clubs not countries," the former Germany coach said.

Even as things stand, and a shaky stance it is too, the majority of supporters feel short-changed when international football intrudes upon the fixture list.

If the circumstances were generally different, one would be tempted to suppose that Wenger's complaint is subjective, but the impression grows that he is not alone with the belief that encounters between national teams may have outlived their usefulness.

The World Cup FOREIGNs - no outstanding team, no outstanding individual, more presentation than substance - provided support for Wenger's theory that club football is technically superior. If this is a matter of individual opinion, it does not take much working out that the patriotism expressed by footballers is often just another word for commercial exploitation.

At a dinner the other night I fell into conversation with John Charles, who performed great feats for Leeds United, Juventus and Wales and is spoken of in the same breath as George Best when people of my generation get around to nominating Britain's outstanding footballer.

Charles played at a time when clubs were not obliged to release players for international duty. In 1965 two Scottish managers, Matt Busby of Manchester United and Bill Shankly of Liverpool, denied their country key men for a World Cup qualifier against Italy in Naples. This caused Charles to miss many matches for Wales and almost an appearance in the 1958 World Cup FOREIGNs.

"I wasn't released until just a few days before the tournament began," he recalled. "It was always the same. If Juventus let me go it was with great reluctance and I was always reminded that they wouldn't be pleased if I came back injured."

Because Charles had an uncomplicated appreciation of the way his career had taken shape in Italy, he accepted the obligation Juventus imposed. The way things look now, we are heading for a confrontation that could have a decisive effect on the future of international football. As for supporters, they may soon come to realise where their loyalties lie - and pronounce international football dead.

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