Football: Fixtures need overhaul for game to flourish

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The Independent Online
DESPITE THE disappointing result for England, we needed to make the most of last Wednesday's friendly international against France, the World Cup holders. In future, dates for such friendlies will be severely limited.

As David O'Leary of Leeds and Jim Smith of Derby prepared their teams for FA Cup fifth-round ties last week they complained about "meaningless" friendlies; Chelsea's Ken Bates has always moaned that England play too many games. Meanwhile, the top clubs in Europe are getting together to demand compensation when their players go away on international duty.

Next season, however, the squeeze will really be on as the European Champions' League is expanded to 32 teams. This will entail 17 Champions' League match dates through the season and means that, if replays are to be retained, the FA Cup third round will have to be brought forward to pre-Christmas. The magic of the FA Cup will be diminished. Moreover, the February date hitherto available for international friendlies will be needed for the European Champions' League.

The balance of world football power is shifting rapidly to the big clubs. It is not only national associations and national teams which will suffer. The whole of the English calendar is being rejigged for the 1999-2000 season solely for the benefit of the three clubs which will qualify for the European Champions' League. The FA Cup, the League and the Worthington Cup will all be more difficult to schedule.

Fifa, the governing body of world football, has recognised the problem, but has come to the issue too late. President Sepp Blatter's call for a World Cup every two years may have some merit if it brings about a rationalisation of the world football schedule. He says the European Championship will be used as a qualifying tournament for the World Cup and the number of qualifying matches reduced. However, his message has not been clearly communicated to Uefa, Fifa's European counterpart, which is up in arms.

Blatter should first have cleared up his own yard. Fifa's plans for a world club championship will merely add to the strain on the top players and is opposed by Uefa. The Confederations Cup has failed to become established. Last time it was held, in Saudi Arabia in December 1997, the grounds for matches other than those of the hosts were poorly attended. I remember sitting through a very long Uruguay v United Arab Emirates game.

Meanwhile, the Fifa World Youth Championship in Nigeria in April threatens to deprive European clubs of first-team players at a time when the season is building to a climax. Poorer nations and clubs want as many matches as they can get, but the richer place their international players under even greater pressure.

There are two easy answers to fixture congestion in England. If you are a Uefa administrator you call for a reduction in the size of the FA Premier League; never mind that the fans and 17 or 18 clubs are quite happy with the present set-up.

Alternatively, if you are one of the fortunate three clubs likely to be in Europe on a regular basis, you can advocate the abolition of the Worthington Cup. This, though, fails to recognise that the Worthington Cup brings in a total of pounds 40m for the clubs from various sources.

All this demonstrates that the whole fixtures set-up is a mess, riven by vested interests and sectional views, not just in England but worldwide as well.

There needs to be a special Fifa summit aimed at reconciling the various interests throughout the world. Only in this way will clubs be able to co-exist with countries, and smaller countries co-exist with their richer neighbours. In addition, national team coaches will have a proper opportunity to prepare their teams in friendlies, free of the pressure of competition.

If that produces a standard world fixture schedule, planned some years in advance, we might have a hope of seeing the world champions in exhibition mode again some time in the future.

Club football can rely on the support of fans, but the international game needs different backing. It is time that the sport's rulers across the world did more to protect and enhance international football.

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