FA Cup final under threat from Fifa's Paris celebrations

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The Independent Football

Arsenal, France and Fifa could face a monumental club-or-country dispute in May due to fixture congestion which has the potential to devalue the FA Cup final. The possible conflict underlines the concern over player burn-out expressed by the coaches of England and France on Sunday.

Both Sven Goran Eriksson and Jacques Santini said they were worried that by the time their two countries met in the European Championship finals on 13 June the players of both sides would be exhausted. The potential demands on their squads are illustrated by the previous month's fixture list.

On 20 May, France are due to play Brazil in Paris in a match billed as "the highlight of Fifa's centennial year". This is two days before the FA Cup final, which has featured Arsenal for the last three seasons. Five Arsenal players - Thierry Henry, Partick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord and Gilberto Silva - would usually play in such a prestigious fixture. To play in both would test even Henry's "va-va-voom".

Ordinarily the Paris fixture, being a friendly scheduled outside the recognised international dates, would not take precedence but, given the occasion, Fifa could insist on players being released - especially with Sepp Blatter, the world governing body's president, seemingly bent on causing difficulties for the Football Association. Under article 36, 2(c) of Fifa's "regulations for the transfer and status of players", Fifa's executive committee can take "a special decision" and make the release of players binding.

A Fifa spokesman said he did not know what the organisation's standpoint would be and added: "With regard to the release of players, the game would probably be considered a friendly but it is the Centennial match." Santini indicated he would play it by ear. His position is further complicated by the knowledge that the French and Spanish league seasons will still be in progress, the Uefa Cup final is the previous day, and the European Cup final the following week.

Arsenal are not the only team to be concerned. Chelsea, who were FA Cup finalists two seasons ago, could lose Claude Makelele, William Gallas and Marcel Desailly. Manchester United would be without Mikaël Silvestre and Kleberson.

The television and security authorities yesterday began considering the implications of Sunday's Euro 2004 draw. The FA has already had outline discussions with the Home Office, their own security advisers, the Portuguese authorities and the British Embassy in Lisbon.

In London, BBC and ITV officials were considering their tactics. With England's opening match, against France, by far the most attractive fixture of the group stages, extensive negotiations are likely. The BBC, which traditionally wins head-to-head clashes, are in a strong position to insist on covering the match. Sky do not have broadcasting rights.

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