THE BIG FIGHT

The major European clubs, moving together as a powerful group, have issued the war cry to gain more concessions from FIFA even if it means that a shadow will be cast over the most prestigious sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup, writes A. Vinod.

If you think that the worst of big European clubs holding FIFA to ransom is behind us, you are mistaken. The situation would only turn murkier as the major clubs, moving together as a powerful group, have issued the war cry to gain more concessions from FIFA even if it means that a shadow will be cast over the most prestigious sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup.

G-14 is a dirty term for lovers of international football. It stands for the Belgium-based association formed in September 2000 by 14 major European clubs — AC Milan, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, FC Porto, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester United, Olympique Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain, PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid. Four more European giants — Arsenal, Bayer Leverkeusen, Olympique Lyonnais and Valencia — joined the group in 2002.

The new group influenced the qualifiers leading to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, with FIFA and its confederations being forced to concede to many demands made by the clubs. After a meeting between the FIFA top brass and the representatives from the European Club Forum and the G-14, FIFA announced on March 23, 2003 that the European, South American and African confederations would play their qualifying matches for the 2006 FIFA World Cup only on the dates specified in the coordinated international football calendar.

It was also announced that the South American national associations had agreed not to demand the release of players for friendly matches being staged outside Europe; the African Confederation (CAF) had agreed to combine the World Cup qualifying competition with the African Cup of Nations; and the South American Confederation had agreed that the Copa America would be restructured as a quadrennial event and held in the same year as the European Nations Cup. The FIFA also decided to scrap the dates set aside for `friendly' internationals in April from 2005.

The decision of the G-14 to boycott last year's FIFA World Club Championships — which was being resurrected by the world governing body after the second edition of the tournament was forced to be cancelled in 2003 following the collapse of its marketing partner, ISL Ltd. — caught the attention of the global media. So did the case filed last year by G-14 in the Charleroi Commercial Court demanding that FIFA pay damages to Belgian club Royal Charleroi as compensation for the eight-month absence due to injury to its player Abdelmajid Oulmers, who picked up the injury while on international duty for Morocco.

The acerbic comments that followed from many VIPs also caught the attention of the media. FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter saw the petition as having only one objective: "to destroy football". Michel Platini said, "They [G-14] only want one thing, money". G-14 Director General Thomas Kurth replied, "We only want to be treated fairly".

The face-off between the major European clubs and FIFA is only a reflection of the fact that the game and its riches are totally concentrated in that continent. Europe, interestingly, is not only home of the world's richest leagues but also a platform for talented players from across the globe, especially those from poor South American and African nations, to ply their trade and gain a substantial income. Take, for instance, Ronaldo, whose multi-million dollar bank account of today is mainly the result of his association with Real Madrid over the last few years.

Money, precisely, is behind the growing tussle between the clubs and the powerful football associations. On one side, we have a group of businessmen seeking to secure their investments while on the other there is a governing body seeking to maintain its hold over a prevailing system while trying to retain relative calm and order among its member groups.

Amid all this, what is certain is that both the sides are toeing a dangerous line. The ramifications could be deadly for the game in the near future itself if a serious attempt is not made by the parties concerned to discuss the real issues involved rather than continuing with their shadow-boxing.

Perhaps, it would be better if they took to the `middle path' to save the game, the charm of which is of paramount importance to fans, rather than the perennial club versus country wrangle.