Fifa are adding insult to injury

Michael Owen's unfortunate injury at the last World Cup has upped the ante in football's club-versus-country dispute.

Michael Owen's unfortunate injury at the last World Cup has upped the ante in football's club-versus-country dispute. Stuart Rayner asks Gordon Taylor the way forward for the game.

Michael Owen

For as long as there is sport, there will surely be club-versus-country disputes. Rugby union has them, cricket has them and football certainly has them.

But because the world's most popular sport is in a different financial league to the rest, the stakes are that much higher.

Newcastle United's ongoing quest for compensation for Michael Owen's ruptured ligaments has merely given more weight to those clubs who are loathe to hand their players over to international teams.

The problems and arguments are so complicated as to make finding a solution extremely difficult. But Gordon Taylor, honorary president of the world players' union Fifpro, thinks the responsibility for compensating clubs should lie with Fifa.

In one corner are the clubs - primarily the rich ones who pool their players from across the globe and reward them handsomely. The G14, a collective of the most wealthy and influential among them, are affronted that they can have some of their most expensive and fragile assets taken off them by national associations who can return them with virtual impunity.

Newcastle are not members of the G14, which includes Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, but on this issue they have football's heavyweights on their side.

In the other corner, Fifa argue if all countries were made to pay to use players, the smaller ones would be priced out of the World Cup just as poorer clubs are priced out of the Champions League.

Belarus, for example, would probably be unable to pay for the services of Arsenal's Aleksandr Hleb, while the Ivory Coast might have to do without Chelsea's expensively-rewarded striker Didier Drogba.

Fifa et al believe tournaments such as the World Cup and the exposure it provides only enhance the value of club footballers. Many a player has seen his transfer value rocket on the back of an impressive summer, and their clubs are seldom shy to cash in.

Both sides apparently see the other's viewpoint as trivial. The clubs make most of football's money and increasingly look down on the international game as an irrelevance. Only last week football anorak Arsene Wenger lambasted the international game as "boring." and the Arsenal manager's is a view which is gathering weight.

"Club football has moved forward and national football has gone backwards," he said. "When you are a club manager you can find players from all over the world, at international level you can only use the players you have."

The answer, according to PFA chief executive Taylor, is for the governing bodies to foot the bill.

"With the amount of money Fifa, Uefa and so on make from their competitions they should be able to foot the bill," he argues.

"As a minimum they should be able to cover the wages for the period the players are injured. They should include the necessary insurance as one of the overheads for the competitions.

"If it's a friendly it should probably be down to national associations, especially ones like England who make so much money from staging these games."

The Magpies have already rewritten the rulebooks as they seek redress for Owen.

The £17m striker has not played this season after injuring his knee 55 seconds into England's World Cup game against Sweden in June. Newcastle have been offered £50,000-a-week by the FA for up to a year towards their star player's wages, while Fifa yesterday made a "final offer" of an additional £1m.

Since United started arguing their case, the FA have upped their compensation limit for future injuries to £100,000-a-week and Fifa have set up a fund to compensate countries for players hurt at World Cups.

Magpies chairman Freddie Shepherd, however, has pointed out that his club has had to pay for a replacement on top of meeting the rest of Owen's reported £115,000-a-week wages.

"It would be unfair if Newcastle don't get cover for Michael's wages," Taylor concurs. "But the money over and above that is difficult to quantify.

"That should be settled by an independent body from within football because it's such a subjective issue. Such a body would need to look at the damage to Newcastle's assets. Michael's not going to be able to come back after an injury like that and be the player he was.

"If it was a civil case there would be a proper judgement by experts and the same should apply in football."

The only certainty is that whatever comes of the head-scratching of people like Taylor, there is certain to never be a solution which pleases everyone.

Nevertheless, it seems certain Shepherd will not let the matter rest until he gets the answer - and the cheque - he is looking for. The result will be a long, drawn-out battle between Fifa and the big boys - and a new round of arguments starting as soon as it is settled.

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Clash of differing interests

Unfortunately for them, Newcastle United are grizzled veterans of the squabbles which crop up when the interests of clubs and countries collide.

Ironically, their most difficult period came when Sir Bobby Robson was in charge.

International football cemented Robson's reputation as a master manager, guiding England to the 1990 World Cup semi-finals. Now he is back on the scene as a "consultant" to rookie Republic of Ireland boss Steve Staunton.

Having gone into battle for his country on numerous occasions in the 1980s, Robson was loathe to release his players for national service when at Newcastle.

It is widely believed Nolberto Solano's first spell at the club came to an end because of Robson's refusal to let his winger represent Peru.

Wary of the travelling to and from South America and the risk of injury it entailed, Robson claimed Solano had agreed to retire from international football, only for the former Boca Juniors man to renege on the agreement once the ink was dry on a new contract.

It caused a breakdown in the pair's relationship and Solano was only able to return once Robson had been shunted into semi-retirement.

Solano was by no means the only player caught up in the dispute - Lomana Tresor LuaLua was leant on not to play for the Democratic Republic of Congo. It wasn't just faraway lands Robson had a problem with, either. The veteran manager was upset to send Craig Bellamy on international duty only to have the Welshman return with a knee injury.

Despite claims of hypocrisy, Robson always insisted he had nothing against international competition.

"People have misrepresented me," he once said. "I have no problems about my players going off to play for their countries.

"I don't argue with (Gary) Speed, Aaron Hughes, Andy O'Brien or LuaLua going away, Shola Ameobi going off with England Under-21s or Hugo Viana going to Portugal.

"I was an England manager for eight years and know unless you get the players you can't do the job.

"It's good for them to go away with their countries. I want them to.

"It still makes me feel proud and makes them better players."

Despite his protestations, Robson was not the first manager to swap sides and he will be a long way off being the last.

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The man at the heart of the issue

He might be a little-known Moroccan whose impact on the international sporting stage has been negligible, but Abdelmajid Oulmers could be about to shake football to its foundations.

Never before has the gulf bbetween the European game's biggest clubs and Fifa appeared wider than at the present point, and, as a complex relationship approaches breaking point, Oulmers is at the long-standing dispute's heart.

A test case that threatens to change the face of international football forever is scheduled to reach the courts next month; should it proceed as planned, it is certain Oulmers will become as well-known - or as infamous - as Jean-Marc Bosman, the man whose dispute with his club led to the free movement of out-of-contract players.

Oulmers suffered a serious injury in November 2004 while playing for Morocco in a friendly against Burkina Faso and had to spend the next eight months on the sidelines.

Aggrieved at their loss, Charleroi - the African's Belgian club - demanded financial compensation from the world game's governing body. And although Fifa's initial response was to brush aside such suggestions, the intervention of the G14 changed everything. A group comprised of some of European football's major clubs threw their weight behind Charleroi's claim for recompense.

Sepp Blatter's pre-emptive meeting with Charleroi's determined chairman failed to find a solution and the case was moved last summer from a tribunal in Belgium to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Bosman's case was the last to require such arbitration and, given the implications, the outcome will be awaited with considerable interest.

Charleroi will argue that the loss of Oulmers damaged their chances of success, and will also point to the wages that had to be paid to the Moroccan during his extended absence. But while for the Belgians the case is about retrieving lost revenue, for the G14 it is far more wide-reaching.

The European game's giants will use the opportunity to fight for pre-agreed levels of financial compensation, as well as seeking recompense for releasing players to their respective countries. The court's findings promise to be fascinating.

 

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