Peter Corrigan: Make the most of this national flag day

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The Independent Football

Wallowing as we are in the middle of an international orgy that began in Paris at one o'clock yesterday lunchtime and will not end until about 3.45 in Dublin this afternoon, it is difficult to see the problem. Just keep pouring and we'll keep lapping it up; at least, some of us will.

Wallowing as we are in the middle of an international orgy that began in Paris at one o'clock yesterday lunchtime and will not end until about 3.45 in Dublin this afternoon, it is difficult to see the problem. Just keep pouring and we'll keep lapping it up; at least, some of us will.

Surely it has never happened before that sons of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are playing for their countries at both codes of football over a 26-hour period – don't forget we lost an hour last night – as the Six Nations' Championship collides with the Euro 2004 qualifying matches. Trying to watch as much of the action as possible, and keeping an eye on your bets at Ascot, made yesterday a test of physical and emotional stamina for millions of sport's armchair prisoners. You needed a heart full of hope and an arse of stone.

And there is barely time to study the newspaper reports, analyses, comments and complaints this morning before bolting lunch ahead of the Grand Slam climax in Dublin. It hasn't been compulsory to watch them all, and in some parts of the country you couldn't, but I watched both Welsh matches plus England's in Liechtenstein while flicking to Ceefax for news from elsewhere.

Scotland v Italy at rugby and Scotland v Iceland at football both kicked off at 3pm – confirming that there is not much cross-code fraternisation there – while there was also a clash between Northern Ireland playing in Armenia and the Republic playing in Georgia, both at 2pm.

It probably won't occur to most of those pursuing this crowded programme that this might be the last time such a surfeit surfaces on our screens.

Be sure that the Six Nations will last for ever. I am not happy with the new format which packs the games into a seven-week period and sprinkles fixtures around weekends with scant regard to the ever-faithful and colourful travelling supporters, but I trust we have beaten off suggestions that it should be meddled with even more by seeding matches so that England always play France in the final fixture.

Furthermore, the relationships in rugby union between clubs and country in the matter of sharing the services of players seem fairly stable. There will inevitably be some conflict of interest, but both sides seem content with the present arrangement.

It was worryingly evident last week that the situation in football is bristling with danger. You get the distinct impression that the Premiership chairmen would have spent yesterday anxiously yearning for their assets to come through unscathed while listening to their silent turnstiles and dreaming of the day when all this flag-waving will be confined to some more convenient corner of the season.

This is by no means a new manifestation in the history of the game, but never have the big clubs been so powerful, not only here but throughout Europe, and never have they been so openly aggressive about what they perceive as their ownership of players. Crisis point does not appear to be far away.

Television does not have a good record of letting documentary teams loose on controversial sporting topics, but the timing and the tone of last Tuesday's programme Football: Club or Country on BBC1 was spot-on. It was more an examination of the issue than the offering of a solution, and the presenter, Alan Hansen, conducted interviews in so many parks and gardens that I thought it was sponsored by the National Trust. But it provided some revealing moments.

One group of youngsters was asked what they would prefer to do: score the winning goal for Manchester United in the Champions' League final or score the winner for England in the World Cup final. Without exception they chose the England option. A cynic would say that they would have more chance of getting in the England team, but I couldn't possibly comment, apart from being impressed by their patriotism. Another cynic might ask on whose behalf they would like to beat up a foreign city, but that's negative.

The loyalty of the youngsters was mirrored by the top players to whom Hansen spoke, and that should not be a surprise. Their personal standing in the game, as well as their income, can be substantially enhanced by playing for their country.

Whether the appeal is as compelling if their country is not doing very well is another matter. Wales and Northern Ireland will have a felt a little disregarded in struggling times. But, eventually, all players will have to face the fact that they do have a part to play in this tug of war other than just being the rope. How many of them insist on a clause in their club contract that they should be released for international duty when required?

Even if they do, a persuasive manager, or even a threatening one, can complicate their lives if they do not put the club first at all times. But managers no longer have to be underhand about their influence. Clubs are unashamedly open about their attitude to England and are demanding a fee for leasing their players out to their countries. I am staggered that some of the leading club directors making this demand also serve on the Football Association.

The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who was busy banging on to Hansen about the number of substitutions the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, has made in friendlies, would have been better served attacking this serious conflict of interest. While Blatter is right to try to put a stop to the use of wholesale substitutions, he should be more concerned about the FA falling into the control of those who have other priorities.

If ever a danger alarm began ringing it did with yesterday's news that David Moffett, the former Sport England chief executive now with the Welsh Rugby Union, has turned down the FA's offer of becoming their top man in place of Adam Crozier.

Moffett has the experience and strength of purpose to be perfect for the job, but the fact that he would prefer the thankless task of trying to rescue the flagging reputation of Welsh rugby shows what he thinks about the chances of restoring the FA's power and dignity.

I am not sure if Blatter realises what a minefield English football has become, but he needs to watch where he puts his feet. One false step and Fifa themselves might be in control of a shrinking empire. If the clubs fail to get their way there could be a rebellion, and this is the likely place for it to be detonated. The clubs feel that they can provide all the excitement and drama a football fan needs. The Champions' League can take over from the European Championships, so why not a World Cup for clubs? With the clubs cornering the market on the stars, the FAs of the world can run the rest of the game; that is if they can afford to.

So, as tiring as this weekend is being on the eyes, we would be wise to make the most of it.

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