Time to deal with the superclubs

RING out the old; ring in the new. Alfred Tennyson wrote his memorable refrain with great pathos. But, in the beginning of a football season that leads up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, fat cats in Europe's top clubs are actually licking their lips in anticipation of a new world order devoid of international football. These people — owners, chairmen, CEOs and managers — are not likely to lose their sleep even if the FIFA World Cup, the sporting event that beats the Olympics in its global popularity, mass appeal and TV viewership, is scrapped in the not-too-distant future.

The advocates of such a school of thought are marked by their reluctance to release their stars — some of whom are drawing upwards of �100,000 a week — for national duty whether it be "meaningless" friendlies, or World Cup and European Cup qualifiers that fall right in the middle of the club season. They reason that the football world is not going to suffer if it loses its showpiece event because the European Champions League has got more quality than the World Cup.

And, Lord, the guys who talk thus are powerful. A few years before he became Italian Prime Minister, AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi was talking thus about the end of international football as we know it: "Club teams will become new international teams. Milan and Juve would represent Italy, Real and Barca would do the same for Spain."

In September 2002, just months after being put out of the World Cup by Ronaldinho's floater past a bemused David Seaman, communication channels broke between England's national coach Sven Goran Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United.

Eriksson had selected Paul Scholes for a friendly against Portugal, and Ferguson pulled him out of the international fixture stating that he was injured. Twenty-four hours later, Scholes started in United's Premiership match against Middlesbrough, and England's Swedish manager was livid at Ferguson, who with typical arrogance, did nothing to sort out the situation.

Eriksson, and other national coaches, have their hearts in their mouths when their leading players are in action for their clubs during the World Cup, European Cup or African Nations Cup years — an injury, like what happened to Steven Gerrard or Robert Pires during the 2001-02 season, is enough to seal their team's fate in the showpiece events. Perhaps, even more worrying is that the ones who escape injury are so physically exhausted by the arduous club season (clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea mostly play as many as three competitions simultaneously between January and May, and the same is the case with top Continental clubs) that they are in no physical condition to come up with their best for the World Cup.

Even more frightening, and humiliating, is the case of the player who, when under pressure from his club manager to choose between club and country, either retires from international football (such as Alan Shearer and South Africa's Shaun Bartlett, who was asked by Charlton manager Alan Curbishley to commit himself fully to club), or walks out of the national team throwing a tantrum, (it is conjectured that Roy Keane walking out on the Irish team in Japan and Korea in 2002 has more to do with recuperating for the next season under Ferguson at Old Trafford than with his disagreements with Irish manager Mike McCarthy) or just wishes to not play for country in showpiece competitions to avoid getting injured, or exacerbating a healed injury (it is speculated that Gerrard's injury had healed by the time of World Cup 2002, and that he was "advised" by the then Liverpool club manager Gerrard Houllier to miss the event to be fully fit by the time the 2002-03 club season began).

In the beginning of the season that culminates in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, UEFA, which is the European confederation of FIFA, should take a strong stand against the commercial cartel trying to undermine the value of international competition. The powers-that-be of FIFA's richest confederation should realise that they have more of a social obligation in keeping alive the FIFA Charter than promoting the mercenaries of its leading clubs, who are not even shy to discuss a breakaway from UEFA.

As FIFA President Joseph Blatter wrote in the Financial Times, London, recently, the value and importance of international competitions is more in terms of social responsibility and less about nationalism, which can be interpreted as sentimentalism. "Those who have money should give it to those who have not," wrote Blatter. "Unlike these elite clubs, the FIFA is a non-profit organisation. What money is left once our costs are covered is passed on to the grass roots. We support local, national and international efforts to entertain everybody — not just the lucky few who can afford pay-per-view."

UEFA boss Lennart Johannson better forget his personal rivalry with Blatter.