James Lawton: For the World Cup's sake, football must protect its prime assets – the players
Saturday 03 April 2010
Oscar Wilde would have summed up most succinctly the loss of Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas in the space of 24 hours this week. It is as he said of departed parents: losing one, unfortunate; mislaying two, carelessness.
Isn't this the story of how football increasingly puts the need for non-stop cashflow above the care of its most precious assets, players who have the capacity to illuminate every game they play, right up to the point they break down?
Mercifully for England, Rooney should be able to play in the World Cup unhampered by what was diagnosed as minor ligament damage after he fell to the ground in agony in Munich, a deliverance denied Spain, Europe's strongest contenders in South Africa.
They had a much bleaker forecast on the chances of Fabregas, who made such a brilliant contribution to his nation's European Championship victory two years ago as arguably the most formidable substitute a major tournament had ever seen. However, both England's coach, Fabio Capello, and his Spanish counterpart, Vicente del Bosque, were sharing again precisely the same fears a few hours later when, absurdly, Liverpool had a torrid engagement in the tinpot Europa League against Benfica in Lisbon.
Another potential Anglo-Spanish catastrophe was in prospect as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres dodged tackles in a competition that carries different meanings for different clubs but in the pecking order of serious football glory is just about worthless.
For Fulham it is an exotic departure from the need to survive in the Premier League, an ambition that under Roy Hodgson they have achieved impressively. For Liverpool it is just another way to rack up income severely depleted by their swift ejection from the only European competition that matters, competitively, for a club of their status.
Maybe there are no pat solutions for an issue that has widened beyond the old club and country argument. The players and their agents want their mansions and supercars that come out of pay budgets which drain away so much of the TV largesse, and yes, of course the price has to be paid. Some, though, might get around to considering a cost that cannot be measured in monetary terms.
It certainly is no good any longer pointing out that men like Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles played more than 60 games before delivering the World Cup to England in 1966, and quite a lot of them on pitches that resembled ploughed fields, because no one would argue against the fact that today's game is inhabited by bigger, faster and more scientifically prepared players and, anyway, someone like Steven Gerrard will be getting up there in his games total if Liverpool go the full Europa course and England just happen to play a maximum seven games in the finals.
He has already played 44 games – and this could grow onerously as Liverpool, after playing six games unavailingly in the Champions League and five in the Europa, with another four possible matches in the latter competition – and each new one he goes into will cause Capello, not to mention his club manager, Rafa Benitez, new trepidation.
Framing the managerial concern is a shocking statistic produced in the aftermath of the injuries to Rooney and Fabregas.
It announced that in the spring players in the Premier League have a four-times greater chance of suffering stress and strain injuries than those in Europe's four other major leagues in Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
The World Cup implications are thus horrendous, as Capello has already learnt with the injuries to Rooney, Ashley Cole and, though it was to him a more academic matter, Michael Owen, plus the long-term problems of such a key figure as Rio Ferdinand.
Of course, Capello's predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson could have told him as much after his experiences in the big tournaments.
In 2002 he took to Japan, for reasons better known to himself, a half-fit David Beckham and Michael Owen and inevitably saw them dwindle as the tournament progressed, even though Owen did score an opportunistic goal in the quarter-final against Brazil, the game in which Beckham felt obliged to jump out of a tackle, a decision that led directly to the concession of an equalising goal.
Two years later in the European Championships in Portugal the potential tournament winner, Rooney, broke down with an injury that effectively wiped out the England chances which had grown sharply on the back of the young player's brilliant form.
In the last World Cup Rooney went to Germany while handicapped by serious injury, as did Michael Owen once more. With Capello insisting that he will never break his rule of taking players into big games without being confident of their fitness, it means that the Premier League climax is going to bring a certain dryness to his mouth and clamminess to his hands.
No, there may be no easy solutions as long as Premier League clubs are so desperate for the income of extra games, in potentially five separate competitions and lucrative foreign tours, and can make the valid point that they pay the wages of the stars upon whom England rely so heavily. But there is certainly a need for some serious thought about the importance of a successful World Cup to every corner of the national game.
There might also be a reminder that when the Premier League was launched nearly two decades ago some solemn promises were made. Included was the declaration that the interests of England would be jealously guarded, eventually to the point of reducing the big league to just 18 clubs. Now, of course, we hear someone like Bolton chairman Phil Gartside not only arguing against such an idea but also campaigning for an end to relegation. Here, surely, is a Doomsday concept, both for the sturdier possibilities of English football right through the leagues and eventually the World Cup.
The great competition is still, at least in the popular imagination, the crown the game wears every four years. Yet it has been looking distinctly askew for some years, most noticeably in 2002, when Zinedine Zidane arrived in South Korea from a glorious goal in the Champions League final at Hampden Park so wrecked by injury and fatigue he couldn't play in France's opening World Cup game, a 1-0 defeat. When he did get on the field finally he looked as jaded as the rest of the defending champions as they failed to make it through the group games – or score a goal.
In Germany in 2006 Lionel Messi came injured and Argentina, after a beautiful opening, faded before our eyes. Ronaldinho, then rated the world's best player, was a shell.
Now Fabregas could be lost from the tournament which is supposed to display the game's best players performing at the peaks of their career. It is a terrible loss, to the World Cup and his highest ambitions. Football, in response, shrugs and says it is the way it has to be.
But is it? Yes – and it will remain so just as long as the game is so careless in the handling of its most valuable assets.
Tiger not out of the rough yet
America's glossy giant Vanity Fair has probed the Tiger Woods affair and come up with another reason to flagellate the fallen star.
It has done it with perfect timing as the Tiger's return to golf next week in Augusta is secure in its status as one of the all-time monster sports events. Cynicism about Vanity Fair's motives should be held in check because, we are told, the reason is not merely to recycle the more squalid aspects of the story but to allege that Woods was economical with the truth when he said that he alone was responsible for the scandal. The magazine claims a member of his entourage did help him in some of his clandestine arrangements and his agent managed to head off the National Enquirer's plan to publish the first break in the story. How staggeringly terrible it is – but could we now move on to the sexy pictures?
Nobody's perfect – not even O'Neill
Martin O'Neill, currently restless at Aston Villa, is almost everything you want in a football manager; he is driven, opinionated and quite often goes off at the deep end. He also has a waspish humour and an imagination that runs beyond the boundaries of a football field. But then nobody's perfect.
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