Football: Playing the game with Fifa's power-brokers

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The Independent Online
WHEN I visited Saudi Arabia in December 1997 as part of the Football Association delegation lobbying to secure the World Cup 2006, the Fifa dignitaries attending the Confederations Cup in Riyadh were not slow to remind us that Germany's non-participation had cost the organisers several million dollars. The message was crystal clear: support Fifa's competitions or you have no chance of hosting 2006. When France caused the postponement of the next Confederations Cup, scheduled for Mexico in January 1999, because they could not obtain the release of players with foreign clubs, England escaped blame by the skin of their teeth.

This time, with the first-ever Fifa World Club Championship, there is no way out that does not sound the death knell for the World Cup 2006 campaign: Manchester United, as champions of Europe, simply have to go. The campaign budget is pounds 10m, one-third of the cost coming from the National Lottery as part of Sport UK's policy to deliver international events to this country, one-third from the FA Premier League and one-third from the Football Association.

With the campaign quickly approaching the Fifa decision in March 2000, it would be inconceivable to pour the money down the drain by offending the power-brokers from the less affluent continents. Jack Warner, for example, from Trinidad and Tobago, is a Fifa vice-president with 20 years' experience of high office, and the World Club Championship is a pet project of his. He allied himself with his Fifa executive committee colleagues from Africa and Asia to outweigh the reservations of Uefa and bring the concept to fruition.

So instead of defending the FA Cup, Manchester United will be playing in a tournament featuring the champions of South America, North and Central America, Asia, Africa and Oceania (a confederation of 10 countries including Australia and New Zealand), plus Real Madrid, the current holders of the World Club Cup, and Corinthians, champions of the host nation, Brazil.

This is not as big an attraction as the FA statement makes out, but it is difficult to find a viable alternative to the FA's bold offer to United to sit out next season's FA Cup campaign.

The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, applied for exemption to the FA Cup fifth round. However, the arithmetic of the competition means this would have had serious knock-on effect on the earlier rounds.

Nor is an extension to the season simple. The FA Cup final is scheduled for 20 May, and soon after the finalists in Euro 2000 will get their squads together to prepare, and such is the nature of the Premiership nowadays that it supplies players to many leading national teams.

Even after missing the FA Cup, Manchester United's fixture schedule will cause disruption to the other clubs as they will be contesting the European Super Cup with Lazio in Monaco on Friday 27 August.

The Football Association's action is ironic. First, the very name the FA Challenge Cup recalls the second year of the competition when inaugural winners Wanderers were exempt till the final, in which they were challenged by Oxford University, who had won through the rounds.

Second, the initial reaction whenever the leading clubs felt themselves disaffected with the Football Association over the years was to threaten to boycott the FA Cup. So when the FA Premier League was set up in 1992, a clause was included in the rules obliging the clubs to remain in the competition. Now it is the FA who are breaching the principle.

Third, when Sir Matt Busby first took Manchester United into Europe over 40 years ago, the English football authorities were lukewarm. Doubtless they thought domestic football would be affected.

Similarly when leading clubs were contemplating a European Super League last year, the Football Association gave its blessing to change on three conditions: that the change took place within the existing Uefa structure rather than in a breakaway; that participation in the new format would be earned on merit; and that the domestic game was not adversely affected.

The last condition quickly went out of the window when the new European Champions' League format threatened FA Cup replays. The replays were salvaged, but only at the cost of bringing the third round forward to 11 December and having a substantial gap between the sixth round on 19 February and the semi-finals on 9 April.

Undoubtedly the FA Cup will be diminished by the absence of the treble holders. The Football Association has learned that, in order to play on the big stage of world football politics, big decisions have to be faced.