Football: Memo to Herr Blatter: One World Cup every four years is quite enough, thank you

Many of the leading figures of France 98 are still jaded. Tim Collings on a case of Post-Mondial Stress Syndrome
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Sepp Blatter is a clever man with the meticulous attention to detail expected of a finely tuned and lovingly prepared piece of Swiss engineering.

In the year of Graham Kelly's demise and the Football Association's blunderings, he has shown Britain's blazers what it really takes to become one of the most powerful administrators in the history of football. An organiser, politician, linguist and charmer, this scheming man of Zurich hit the jackpot last summer when he succeeded Joao Havelange to the presidency of world football's governing body Fifa on the eve of France 98, and joined forces with Michel Platini in creating a new face for the future. It was to be New Football and New Fifa.

This week that happy image began to crack. The strain of high office, and the inevitable struggle between European club and international football for the biggest share of television income, sponsors' largesse and, most importantly, players' loyalties began to show. As the proposed fixtures pile up and each side trumps the other with more and more promises of money, the men in white coats may soon be required.

Blatter's proposal to turn the World Cup finals from a global fiesta every four years into a biennial junket deserves consideration because of its source, but it goes in the face of all common sense at a time when Europe's knackered stallions of the football fields are only just beginning to recover their form, finesse and enthusiasm after last year's tournament in France. Brilliant players such as Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp, Zinedine Zidane and Davor Suker have more in common than the obvious. Yes, they are all wonderful goalscoring forwards for Brazil, Holland, France and Croatia respectively. Yes, they all shone like stars, albeit flickering ones at times, during France 98. And, yes, each is a high-profile marketing figurehead for a great European club - with Internazionale, Arsenal, Juventus and Real Madrid enjoying the revenue that stimulates.

But, more significantly, each played in attack for his country in the World Cup semi-finals and each has suffered since a slump in form that can only be attributed to overwork.

Ronaldo's story is well known. Thanks to prolonged absences and Serie A's mid- winter break, his worn-out knees have a good chance of recovering in time to terrorise Manchester United when the European Champions' Cup quarter- finals begin in March.

Bergkamp? Between his return to Arsenal's colours in August and the festive season fixture at Villa Park, he played like a ghost and the Gunners spent four months firing blanks.

Zidane's form for Juventus, like that of Alessandro Del Piero, was such that the great Italians only squeezed into the last eight of the Champions' League on the final night, while Suker has failed to hold down a place in the European Cup champions' team since topping the scorers' charts in Paris.

Indeed, nearly all the stalwarts of national teams who performed heroically in France have struggled on return to duty with ambitious and demanding clubs. Shortly before Christmas Emmanuel Petit criticised the lunacy of England's congested fixture lists and even threatened strike action. "We are tired and we have to play so many games in England and for our national team," he said. "It is very difficult to recover because we had so little break after the World Cup. It is bad news for us and for Arsenal."

His manager, Arsene Wenger, like George Graham at Tottenham and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has talked of an English winter break. But how, when the Champions' League is to expand next season, and be followed by the European Championship finals and the Premier League, has no plans to reduce its bloated size?

A look around Europe shows the same post-World Cup problems exist everywhere. The World Cup men, those who delivered in France, have been jaded. Their club performances have suffered. Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain; Juventus and Milan in Italy. It was the autumn of unexpected league leaders such as Munich 1860, Celta Vigo and Aston Villa.

In England, these problems have been serious - and not because of the longevity of England's team in the tournament. When Brazil (who played seven games at France 98 to England's four) overcame Denmark in Nantes on 3 July, the lasting memories were of two Rivaldo strikes; of Roberto Carlos, like Ronaldo, looking fatigued; of Michael Laudrup trudging into retirement, Brian following him and of Peter Schmeichel beaten twice from a decent range. Since that night, Brian Laudrup's passion for the game has dried up to the extent that he lost interest in Chelsea's great cosmopolitan adventure and Schmeichel has struggled to maintain any kind of consistency. Theirs are great careers hurried towards early graves by the modern crush of the game.

Of the France and Italy teams who met at St Denis the same day, Didier Deschamps, Zizou himself and Youri Djorkaeff have suffered the worst for the World Cup winners after giving their all for Les Bleus (and what of Stephane Guivarc'h, now at Rangers, via Newcastle?) while almost all of the Italians have struggled. But perhaps the most eloquent example of a post-World Cup hangover was supplied by the Dutch. Having dazzled on the way to their quarter-final with Argentina, they were beaten on penalties by Brazil and went home exhausted.

Their coach Guus Hiddink, now at Real Madrid, understood. His diary showed that from the time he took control of the Dutch squad last May to December, he had just one afternoon - only three hours - off. "I had no time at all, no time to recover myself properly," he admitted. "It was very difficult. I came to a big club, a new club for me, with a lot to learn and look at and such big expectations. Real were the European champions, but, like me, the players were tired. I am not complaining. I am well rewarded. But it is just a part of the job at this level nowadays. It is a tough occupation for us all now - players, coaches and managers. The pressure is unrelenting."

The midfielder Clarence Seedorf, used sparingly in France, has retained a freshness for Madrid, but at a time when his team-mates are jaded. "There are too many games," he said simply. "The big clubs need bigger and bigger squads to cope. It changes everything from how it was. It is not about teams and players anymore, but about squads, travel and television shows. But it is always easier to play if you are winning. Ask anyone. But not everyone is winning."

The problem, as Blatter will surely be told, is that a biennial 32-team World Cup finals will be too much, too often, for too many. Fifa and Uefa, urged on by their media and television sales advisers, are now ready to kill the goose that has laid their golden eggs.

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