Kathy Marks: Clubs incite Antipodean antipathy

Letter from Sydney
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The Independent Football

David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, would be well advised to steer clear of Australia in the near future, and the same goes for Sepp Blatter, the florid-faced Fifa president.

The likelihood of Dein paying a visit is slim. As far as he is concerned, Melbourne might as well be on Mars, and he scoffs at the notion of European players being expected to "shoot off to the other side of the world at the drop of a hat".

Dein was the ringleader behind a petition to Fifa by 11 European clubs urging that next month's friendly between Australia and France at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) be switched to a venue in Europe to avoid subjecting players to long-haul flights in the middle of the season.

In an unprecedented step, Fifa responded by issuing a "strong recommendation" to the national sides that they select just one player from each European club. Both vowed to defy the quota and football's world governing body backed down at the weekend, Blatter telling the French newspaper L'Equipe that the clubs were free to pick whoever they wished.

That decision is expected to be confirmed in an official statement today, but Australian football authorities remain furious about a move that could have sabotaged the country's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals – to be held in Japan and South Korea – for the first time since 1974.

The friendly on 11 November against the world and European champions will be a crucial warm-up for the Socceroos, who will meet the fifth-placed South American team – most likely Uruguay – in the first leg of the play-offs at the MCG ten days later.

There could be no better preparation for two of the most important matches in Australia's history, and the national coach, Frank Farina, is naturally anxious that his men should face a full-strength French squad.

Soccer Australia is disgusted by what it sees as Fifa's craven response to an attempt by powerful European clubs to bully a footballing nation with no international clout. With the fixture falling in a free weekend for all major European leagues, the players will not miss any club matches.

Ian Holmes, acting chief executive officer of Soccer Australia, called the petition "an act of malevolence by arrogant, self-indulgent clubs". He added: "I think it is reprehensible. I think it is Eurocentric. They have forgotten that Australia is no longer some sort of penal colony subservient to some decaying feudal empire." Media commentators were equally scathing. In The Age, a Melbourne daily, Michael Lynch accused wealthy European clubs of being "bloated by greed". He said: "They scour places like Australia, Africa and Asia in a bid to cheaply grab emerging talent. They then hold the game to ransom by refusing to release players needed for games in these countries." In the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid, Philip Micallef wrote: "Arsène Wenger (of Arsenal) is the latest manager to catch the newest version of the 'malaise Anglaise', the English disease of dismissing Australia as some third-rate country from the wrong end of the world and which has no right to mix it with soccer's élite." Dein, vice-chairman of the Football Association, has denied that his role in organising the petition – also signed by Chelsea, Fulham, Leeds and Manchester United – was connected with the fact that four Frenchmen play for Arsenal.

He was unrepentant even when David Davies, the FA's executive director, telephoned Holmes last week, offering to help ensure that Farina had a full squad available for the friendly. The French national side would have been unrecognisable if the one player per club rule had been enforced, and Farina would have also faced some difficult choices – although Leeds said subsequently that it would be happy to release both Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Australia's star strikers.

Farina believes that his squad will be the strongest ever fielded by Australia, who are 48th in the Fifa world rankings. Kewell and Viduka will play together for the Socceroos for the first time in nearly two years. World Cup qualification is the last sporting Holy Grail for Australia, which came agonisingly close to a berth in the 1998 Finals, losing to Iran in the last 13 minutes of the second play-off at the MCG.

The row with Fifa and the European clubs illustrates Australia's dilemma as it strives for recognition in one of the few sports at which it does not excel.

It will not be taken seriously until it qualifies for the World Cup, but it has no chance of achieving that goal without the sort of top-shelf competition of which Arsenal et al tried to deprive it.