Football: Uefa proposes increase in internationals

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL'S ALREADY congested international calendar faces further complication from a new Europe-wide knockout competition to replace the increasingly redundant programme of friendly matches across the continent.

Europe's governing body, Uefa, yesterday outlined its plans for a revolutionary tournament to be staged in odd years in the second half of the season. The new competition, conceived at Uefa's annual conference of all its 51 presidents and general secretaries, would compliment the existing European Championship, which would remain unchanged. No start date has been agreed, but initial feedback was positive for a tournament that would almost certainly be squeezed into a six-month period on dates hitherto set aside for international friendlies.

Gerhard Aigner, the Uefa general secretary, said most people now acknowledged that friendly matches were on the way out. "A subsidiary competition could stimulate and motivate national teams," he said. "We have 20 dates for international matches over a two-year period of which eight are for friendlies. We don't want to lose any of these, so we should find something to replace friendlies."

Aigner said the club-versus-country conflict had become so serious that it was time to redress the balance in favour of international sides. "The steep upturn of club football has reduced the importance of national sides," he said.

Although Uefa would not admit as much, the proposed tournament, still in its conceptual stage, is clearly designed to scupper Fifa's controversial proposal for a biennial World Cup to which the whole of Europe objects. "On first sight the idea can be seen as logical, but on further inspection it is clear that it will not help national teams and would in fact pose a threat to existing competitions," Aigner said. "Public interest would decline."

So strongly does Uefa oppose the idea of a World Cup every two years that it circulated a hard-hitting survey to every one of yesterday's delegates. The report's findings concluded that a biennial World Cup would devalue football both from a financial and sporting standpoint, a serious blow for Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, who had been a major force behind the scheme.

David Davies, the Football Association's acting chief executive, gave a cautious reaction to Uefa's proposal. "We would need to know a lot more about it. But certainly my judgement is that there is a significant feeling in the majority of European countries that the days of friendly matches are numbered."

Davies warned, however, that doing away with non-competitive games altogether could have a negative impact. "The visit of Argentina in February will almost certainly fill Wembley. People have to assess whether they want that sort of thing in the future."

In a forthright speech on the club-versus-country issue, Aigner also dismissed the suggestion put forward by Europe's leading clubs that they be compensated for injuries to players on international duty.

The former Blackburn coach Roy Hodgson said, however, the debate was in danger of ignoring the most important commodity - the players. Hodgson has seen the difficulties from both sides, having coached Switzerland's national team to great success, and he said that unless there was a compromise between national associations and their leading clubs, there would always be a conflict of interests. One solution, he said, would be to revise the current programme of competitive internationals, sticking with double- headers, but playing on Wednesdays and Sundays instead of Saturdays and Wednesdays.

"This would be a great advantage to both sides," Hodgson said. "It would have the benefit of allowing players to be back with their clubs by Tuesday, giving plenty of time to prepare for the weekend's games."

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