Eriksson must hope dispute forges unity

England made a nervous entry into Istanbul's Ataturk Airport last night with one man breaking through the security cordon to accost David Beckham. He was whisked away before it could be determined whether he intended to threaten or laud Beckham, who even has admirers by the banks of the Bosphorus, but the incident clearly unsettled the England captain. The reception was otherwise more notable for the size of the media presence than the hostility of the reception.

Beckham was not the only Englishman who headed for the hotel deep in thought. Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, was pondering the ramifications of the absence of Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand. Mark Palios, the chief executive of his employers, the Football Association, was mulling over the consequences of this week's damaging stand-off over Ferdinand's omission.

The answers will have come more readily to Eriksson. John Terry, surprisingly the only man to play all 270 minutes of England's international action this season, will replace Ferdinand. A combination of Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey will try to fill the attacking void left by Owen.

Neither solution is ideal. Terry and Sol Campbell looked uncomfortable in their only outing together in Macedonia last month. Rooney and Heskey worked better when the latter was introduced in that game but lack, respectively, experience and goals. Rooney is likely to be asked to play in a deeper role linking with the midfield.

Eriksson worked on these partnerships, and his few alternatives, during training in Hertfordshire yesterday morning. He will do so again at the Fenerbahce Stadium tonight.

On the pitch, and in the corridors of the team hotel, he will also be looking for evidence that the players' dispute with the FA has drawn the squad together, strengthening their resolve, rather than divided, confused and embittered them.

It is not just the increasing evidence that the party was not so much united behind Ferdinand, but railroaded into threatening a strike by a few senior players, which will concern him. And let us be clear before history is rewritten, it was a genuine threat, delivered as such by the players' committee to the FA. As for the FA breaking Ferdinand's confidentiality, The Sun, which ought to know as Ferdinand writes a paid-for column for them, yesterday revealed it was one of Ferdinand's agent who leaked his name.

It is the players' comment, in their statement, that the FA was "the organisation we represent" which will also worry Eriksson. It suggests the team believe they are playing for the FA, not England; that they represent a governing body not a country. When the going gets tough tomorrow evening they might ask why they should extend themselves for an organisation which has "failed them". As the trend towards international retirement underlines, players' first allegiance is increasingly to club, not country.

This muddled perception underlines a truth confirmed by the affair which Palios, as he reviews events, would do well to consider. The FA have too many conflicts of interests to run the game effectively. As well as commanding the national team, it is the sport's administrator, disciplinary adjudicator and biggest earner. It is supposed to deal equally with the parks pub player and the Premiership millionaire (a glance at the differing sanctions for misbehaviour will confirm this is not achieved - parks players are subject to far greater penalties).

Conflicts are embedded in the FA's structure. The FA's direction is increasingly influenced by the Professional Game Board - whose members were in touch throughout the Ferdinand crisis. This six-man group is dominated by Premiership representatives including Arsenal's David Dein. His club obviously stand to benefit if Ferdinand is banned. The Arsenal vice-chairman may well consider all decisions with strict impartiality, but there is a clear risk of him being accused otherwise. As a significant shareholder he has a financial as well as an emotional stake in the club.

Being both the disciplinary body and the administrative arm creates another conflict. As this week, and an earlier dispute with Sol Campbell, illustrated, the FA frequently upsets the very people they enlist on the pitch and in the sponsorship marketplace. The latter aspect also irks the clubs who begrudge the FA's growing share of the pot.

The FA should thus support, rather than hinder attempts to create a national regulatory body. "Off-Foot" would be responsible for reining in crooked directors, punishing miscreant clubs and players, and running the whole disciplinary caboodle. The FA would no longer be seen as "the bad guy" and could get on with what most people at Soho Square want to do: to promote and protect at all levels a game they love.

There are, though, empire-builders and egotists at FA headquarters as in any large organisation. These men are reluctant to surrender their powers and perks to an outside agency. It is too early to see if Palios suffers from the same malaise. His initial sabre-rattling may indicate a man of determination and principle rather than self-aggrandisement.

Unfortunately for reformers, the political will is no longer present to push through change. A Government which once sought to bask in the national team's reflected glory and promised to reform the "People's Game", now views it as a potentially damaging association. Many more weeks like this one and the calls for intervention will, though, begin again, this time to save football from itself.

Comments