Club stress and strain takes its toll of major nations

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Had the match been in the Estadio Jose Alvalade they might have escaped notice ­ the multi-coloured seating pattern in Sporting Lisbon's stadium has been designed to mask the no-shows. But in Porto's Estadio Dragao there was no escaping the reality on Sunday night. Eleven thousand empty seats ­ for a European Championship quarter-final.

Had the match been in the Estadio Jose Alvalade they might have escaped notice ­ the multi-coloured seating pattern in Sporting Lisbon's stadium has been designed to mask the no-shows. But in Porto's Estadio Dragao there was no escaping the reality on Sunday night. Eleven thousand empty seats ­ for a European Championship quarter-final.

Until now this has been a well-attended and enthusiastically viewed tournament at the box office and sofa. Now we are at the business end of the competition, however, and the big drawcards are already home.

The most populous country left in Euro 2004 is the Netherlands, population 15.9 million. The Czech Republic, Greece and Portugal all weigh in at just over 10 million each, a combined population less than that of England, Germany, Italy or France, and not much more than Spain's.

None of that quintet are left, which is a problem for Uefa. They comprise the biggest television markets which, in turn, attract the advertisers and sponsors. First the World Cup (South Korea and Turkey in the semi-finals), now Euro 2004. If viewers turn off, so will the marketing and money men.

Why the successful revolt of football's lower orders? The obvious answer is the demands of club football on the leading men of the major nations. France's defeat to Greece illustrated the difference in workload. Taking into account league matches only, the French team, most of whom competed in more demanding competitions, physically and mentally, had played an average eight matches more last season than the Greek, 29 to 21. In addition, most of the French players were employed by clubs which had enjoyed a run in European competition, reaching at least the quarter-finals.

The French looked shot. Jacques Santini, their Tottenham-bound coach, said: "It could be the players were tired. That is not just my opinion, many international coaches have pointed that out. We should have a better preparation before tournaments for players whose clubs are in the big leagues."

Andy Roxburgh, Uefa's technical director and former manager of Scotland, said: "There's a limit to what even the fittest player can cope with. It's as much the mental pressure as the physical demands of the game. The modern player has to win all the time. We've reached saturation point in terms of what is accepted of certain players at certain clubs."

Sven Goran Eriksson is one of the coaches who agree with Santini. It is hardly surprising, as Trevor Brooking will find, in his review of the tournament for the Football Association, England's starting XI averaged 34 league games a head, plus European ties. That they kept going against Portugal was a triumph of will. Was it coincidence that the Greek player who made the most appearances in a major league last season, Stelios Giannakopoulos of Bolton (31), was, like Patrick Vieira, ruled out of the France-Greece tie with a muscular injury?

It could be argued that the English league is now no more competitive than the Greek, given the gulf between the leading clubs and the rest, but the game is still played at a relentless pace. Arsenal's players may be superior to West Bromwich Albion's next season, but they will have to match them for graft before they can display their art.

This is so for all 38 games and the size of the league remains a problem. Eriksson has finally persuaded the Premiership to accept, in principle, a winter break, but they could not squeeze it in for next season. He hopes they will do so for the season before the 2006 World Cup, but has no guarantees.

It has been claimed that Uefa will force leagues to reduce their size ahead of Euro 2008 to just 16 clubs (Italy, France and Germany have 18, Spain and England 20). This is improbable. Uefa can threaten to deny entry to their lucrative club competitions to teams from leagues which do not comply, but the Premiership, La Liga, et al, know Uefa could not do without clubs from such big TV markets. Even reducing the Premiership to 18 clubs, as was planned in the original FA blueprint, is unlikely as it would cut gate and TV revenue, and cost two clubs a seat at the honey pot. Only Arsenal, Manchester United and, perhaps now, Chelsea, have ever favoured such a move.

One country has, of course, bucked the trend. Portugal's success is built around a spine of players from Porto who won the Superliga, the Champions' League and Portuguese Cup. However, Maniche Ribeiro, Costinha, Nuno Valente, Ricardo Carvalho and Deco (who averaged 28 league games apiece), are riding the wave of support hosts always experience and benefiting from a programme which gives them more rest than their opponents in every fixture.

The other semi-finalists have benefited hugely from having key figures who are relatively fresh. Milan Baros, the tournament's leading scorer, played in just 13 league games last season after breaking his ankle while Czech team-mate Tomas Rosicky managed 19 after fracturing his arm. For the Dutch Edgar Davids played 23 games, spilt between Juventus and Barcelona, Arjen Robben 23 for PSV Eindhoven and Andy van der Meyde 14 at Internazionale. All have arrived fresh and, for Davids and Van der Meyde, whose rest is largely due to being omitted, motivated.

It is not just football which has this problem. Lawrence Dallaglio, England's rugby captain, returned from Australia this week bemoaning the fixture list and the cricketers have long complained about their schedule.

Television finances all three sports and the medium expects plenty of action in return, but rugby and cricket can at least put in place some safeguards. Rugby is to limit of the number of matches individuals can play, cricket has central contracts. In football national teams have to work around the club game.

There is hope on the far horizon for Uefa. Europe's media buyers may be pondering the value of football, but the world's fastest-expanding market has fallen in love with Euro 2004.

In China millions have endured sleepless nights to tune into matches and scour websites and special supplements devoted to the tournament. Television attendances of 40-50 million viewers are anticipated, with 100m yuan ($12m) being taken in advertising revenue. Uefa's pleasure is tempered, however, by the knowledge that they are not the only ones welcoming Asian interest. After Manchester United and Real Madrid it will be Barcelona visiting China this summer. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool heading for the States next month, it is clear that global tours are here to stay and, come 2008, the players will be as exhausted as ever.