Too many fixtures, too much football?

TOO many vested interests pulling in too many different directions means international football can be as much of a hindrance as a help to the game.

THE training grounds of Darsley Park and the Academy of Light will be noticeably quieter this week. Across the world, professional football is in international mode.

Managers will be taking a few well-earned days off, so too some players. The rest will be jetting here, there and everywhere to represent their countries.

Premier League football clubs field players from across the planet. It means managers can draw on a pool of talent far deeper than the puddle their predecessors once did. It also means their key players will be flying off to places they have probably never even heard of.

Some will come back euphoric after a rare cap or a vital result. Others will be battered, bruised, jet-lagged or all three.

More often than not their club managers will only find out a day – or if they are lucky two – in advance which it will be. It is why they despise international weeks.

When it comes to club v country in the 21st Century, there is only one winner.

Some of the super clubs that bestride the Champions League could quite easily buy some countries. Some are more or less owned by others.

So it should come as no surprise the number of international dates is due to get smaller, rather than bigger.

From 2014-18, it will shrink to 18, four less than for the previous four years. They will all be double-headers, squeezing the games into nine blocks. Clubs will have to part with their most precious assets less often – a maximum of nine times instead of 12. Still they will not be happy. They never are. And why should they be when meeting the often unrealistic demands put on them is made so much more difficult?

The quietness of international-break training grounds is almost always punctuated by the whining of managers.

“It has been stop-start for everyone,” said Martin O’Neill when asked to assess the season so far at Sunderland. An early-season deluge the Stadium of Light coped with less effectively than some of the parks pitches around it did not help, but the main reason is international football.

It is not until this latest break is over that the English season can really start to find any sort of rhythm. Up until now it has been punctuated by three chunks of international-induced inactivity.

There are more games in November – but not at the expense of any domestic action – before the representative sides go into mothballs for the winter. Then it will be the international managers’ turns to complain, about not seeing players again for three months.

All the moaning about the damage international football does to the domestic programme overlooks one inconvenient fact – the demands of the domestic game mess it up too.

No club manager would dream of going into a season without friendlies to reshape his side and rethink its strategies. But many a club manager has gone on record demanding friendlies between countries be banned.

Club managers would not go three months without so much as a catch-up with their squad to reflect on previous games and campaigns. They are quite happy for that to happen to their international counterparts. There is far too much football for everyone to be properly accommodated. Everyone fiercely protects their own interests and, while concessions are made, they rarely go far enough.

Strong governing bodies prepared to look coldly at the best interests of the game and not the vested ones constantly lobbying them are needed. But the clubs have grown too wealthy, too powerful to be told what to do. Many a player has retired early from international football under duress from those who pay his wages.

When asked recently if Rio Ferdinand could play a part for a post-John Terry (pictured left) England, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson replied: “He could do the job for England, I have no doubt about that. But I don’t see why he should. I think he should concentrate on his career here.”

Ferdinand may not be a member of Mensa, but even he could probably work out the message.

Roy Hodgson has made the decision for him but for others, the suspicion is the decision to retire has not been made entirely freely, particularly by players whose international careers take them outside of Europe.

Besides, the governing bodies are no better.

Fifa is happy to set up a ridiculous World Club Championship no club attaches much real value to slap bang in the middle of domestic seasons. Uefa seem intent on expanding the Europa League until there is not a person on the Continent remotely interested in the once-great competition they have bastardised.

The public face of the FA – the England manager – is forever banging the drum for winter breaks, but as long as it means disruption to the FA Cup, he may as well talk to himself.

And the Premier League clubs are far more likely to vote for a 39th game overseas than cull a couple of colleagues.

All have made small concessions at times – the Premier League obliged when Sven-Göran Eriksson asked for the season to finish a week earlier in tournament years. But for as long as football is a world game, one part of it working in isolation makes no difference.

As a Premier League spokesman pointed out: “We are made aware of international, European competition, FA and League Cup match-dates and have to work around them while also taking policing considerations, broadcaster selections and several other factors into account.”

The wealth of their clubs may bring influence, but once decisions are made, they are bottom of the fixture food chain.

Change will have to come from the very top, and with the agreement of everyone below. There is more chance of the Darsley Park car park being full this morning.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer