Football: Nothing friendly about international expansion

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The Independent Online
THE HOUSE of European Football was inaugurated on the shores of Lake Geneva last week. Delegates from all Europe's football associations gathered for a conference in the new headquarters which Uefa hopes will reflect the image of dynamism, openness, balance and transparency that the sport's European governing body intends to project in the new millennium.

There was certainly an air of dynamism present as proposals poured out and working parties or task forces (the acceptable face of committee-ism) were set up.

Nothing better illustrates Uefa's intent to redress the imbalance of wealth among the European footballing nations nor more clearly shows its wish to wrest power from Fifa, the world governing body, than the suggestion to replace the so-called meaningless friendly international matches with a new knock-out competition.

Some nations have no difficulty in arranging prestige friendly matches. England's forthcoming fixture against Argentina in February is a prime example. The national coach may bewail the fact he suffers from so many cry-offs for these games, but the coffers overflow from gate receipts. Brazil's players have long been subject to a rigorous schedule of matches around the world and the change of kit sponsor from Umbro to Nike did nothing to reduce the demands on the stars every football fan wants to see.

Understandably, the clubs who employ the players are looking askance at the idea. Competitive internationals, of course, are subject to stringent rules for the release of players which national coaches are reluctant to enforce for friendlies for fear of damaging their relationship with the club managers on whom they depend so much.

By contrast, the less affluent countries, who struggle to fill their grounds even for the most attractive friendly, would welcome a regular schedule of matches with a more competitive edge. Northern Ireland, for example, could manage only 11,000 spectators for their recent friendly against the world champions, France.

A new competition would, therefore, become an equalising factor in the continuing battle to minimise the gap between football's haves and have- nots. But, of course, it would lead to further demands on the leading players across the continent at a time when Uefa is calling for a reduction in the number of domestic fixtures.

English clubs will regard the proposal as another turn of Uefa's screw against the size of the Premier League which, unique among all European countries, continues to draw a compromise with clubs who also play in a third domestic competition, the Worthington Cup, or a second, in the case of Manchester United who are still missing from the FA Cup this season (despite Tony Blair's exhortations).

They will also be sceptical about the timing of the proposal, coming as it does so soon after the Fifa president Sepp Blatter's call for a biennial World Cup.

The club v country conflict is nothing new. The massive concentration of television-generated wealth in Europe has heightened the mutual suspicion that exists between Uefa and Fifa.

Uefa set up a task force to examine whether players' transfers could be limited to two short periods, one at the start of the season, and one in the middle, totalling about two months. The idea is to curb the activities of agents and the bigger clubs.

However, I would like to see how many transfers actually take place during the season. I doubt whether the activities of predatory agents and the clubs who use them have a major impact on the clubs. Certainly the idea will go down like a lead balloon in the lower reaches of the game: chairmen struggling to keep their club afloat in the Third, Second or even First Division would love the opportunity to sell any player for a big fee.

The imposition of a salary cap on players of clubs in Uefa competitions is another idea to emerge from Geneva. Again the theory is to limit the power of the wealthiest clubs.

And the theory is great. Football must come to terms with the fact that mega-money is destroying competition as the powerful clubs struggle to compete.

The reality, however, is very different. Football's authorities found it difficult to detect cheating when the game was much simpler. An elaborate scam by Sunderland to pay their players wages in excess of the maximum permitted by League regulation was only discovered when a perceptive official realised that the amount of straw the club was purportedly buying to protect the Roker Park pitch from frost would have covered the whole of County Durham 10 times over. How much more difficult will it be to regulate in these days of plcs and off-shore trusts?

I would like to think that football's finances could be equalised and more clubs be allowed to compete effectively. But Uefa itself, in its need to ward off the threatened super league a year ago, has contributed to the imbalance by expanding the Champions' League. The only way to correct the inequities caused by market forces is to start again with a clean sheet of paper.