Too many tournaments

LONG ago, way back in the 1950s, that arch competitor Vittorio Pozzo was deploring the plethora of competitions.


Gareth Southgate of England celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the international friendly match against South Africa at the ABSA Stadium in Durban. England won the match 2-1.-Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES

LONG ago, way back in the 1950s, that arch competitor Vittorio Pozzo was deploring the plethora of competitions. It seemed, he said, that you could no longer have games between national teams without turning it into a tournament. This from the commissario tecnico, or overlord, who won the World Cup twice with Italy in 1934 and 1938. But how right he was, and how heavily we are now paying the consequences. At club as well as international level.

I seem to recall that Vittorio was especially exercised about what was originally called the European Nations Cup and is now more grandiosely named the European Championship. Had he lived to see what a proliferating monster it became, he would have been still more displeased.

This competition, which is up and running at the moment in its endless qualifying stages, began modestly enough, between 1958 and 1960. Very wisely in my view, the four British countries refused to take part. In these days of course the oldest of all such tournaments, the British International Championship, was still alive, though as the Euro tournament grew in size, and as the drunken excesses of the Scotland fans who came to London grew — even to the extent of tearing down the Wembley goalposts and ripping up the turf — so it got pushed to the end of the season and finally disappeared in the 1980s. There just wasn't room for it.

As for the Nations Cup, or whatever you want to call it, its qualifying groups and quarterfinals ultimately produced four survivors as semifinalists. Only then, as opposed to now, was the venue for the closing stages chosen, going to one of the four teams that were left. So the finals were numerically at least modest affairs, two semifinals, a third place match and the Final.

But oh no, that wasn't nearly good enough for UEFA. So first we saw the last four increased to eight and then alas to 16. While the World Cup, initially limited to the last 16, was bloated first into a numerically unmanageable 24 teams then to 32. And now Sepp Blatter, at last doing something sound and sensible as the President of FIFA, has been fighting the good fight against the South Americans and their allies, who want to increase the complement to an insane 36!

In the meantime, both the Euro Championship and the World Cup's qualifying tournaments have been exponentially enlarged, largely thanks to the break up of the Soviet Empire and the proliferation of new countries, which has resulted. Personally I've never been convinced of the necessity of the Euro or Nations Cup at all. Though, as we know so well, its existence and the enlarging of the World Cup has meant the virtual demise of the friendly international as opposed to the so-called "official" international as the relevant phenomenon. So, such great classics of the game as 1932's England 4 Austrian Wunderteam 3 at Chelsea or Hungary's 6-3 win against England at Wembley in November 1953 are prehistoric artefacts now.

England's recent ill-judged trip to South Africa, though it made the FA a lot of money, was an instance of how the friendly tends now to become an encumbrance. Hardly had the English season finished than the England players were being dragged to Durban, roused from their beds at 6.30 a.m. to fly to Johannesburg to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, then flown back again: ultimately to play a South African team which put it about with such gusto that David Beckham — who had handed Mandela an England shirt — broke a bone in his wrist and was ruled out for eight weeks. Eight of the squad were ludicrously excoriated for not making the trip to see Mandela. But significantly one of them was the most mature and experienced player of the party in Gareth Southgate, who preferred he said to concentrate on preparing for the ensuing game. In which he scored for England after 37 seconds!

No wonder that soon after this Gordon Taylor, the Secretary of the Professional Footballers Association should protest at the burdens being put upon his players. The England centre half Rio Ferdinand, who was plainly not fit to play and had to be substituted also raised his voice in complaint. The FA mindlessly announced that the South African trip had been a great success; but for whom? For the South African FA? For Mandela? As propaganda for South Africa's candidacy to stage the World Cup in 2010? There remain two colossal objections to that. First the shocking amount of crime in the country's big cities. Secondly, the disastrous riots and huge loss of life which have occurred at some of their major games.

But wait: this summer also sees that monumental irrelevance, the so-called Confederations Cup, taking place in France. At a time when surely the European players at least, not to mention the bunch of Brazilians who play in Europe, should be taking their ease. This was a tournament dreamed up by the unlamented Joao Havelange when President of FIFA seeming to placate his allies in Arabia. Where is the sense and the logic of perpetuating it?

Then FIFA seem determined to reinstitute a still more idiotic and superfluous tournament, the so-called Club World Cup, a monumental money losing flop when it was put on in Brazil. The cause of endless grief for Manchester United who were bullied by the FA and the British Government to forsake the FA Cup which they then held and participate: all in the dubious cause of getting England the 2006 World Cup. Well, they didn't get it; and United are still being blamed for going when it was the last thing they wanted.

Today's star footballers may be paid like princes but they are still mere flesh and blood and as Gordon Taylor points out far too many of them are now staggering around as cripples, victims of clubs and countries which ruthlessly stuck a needle into their injuries and pushed them out to play. It is still happening. As Taylor pointed out, it did to the Arsenal centre half Martin Keown before the 2003 FA Cup Final and for that matter to the Southampton midfielder, Marsden. Clearly neither should have played and both may bear the consequences.

The trouble is that once the juggernaut of excessive competition has been set in motion not least in another absurdly overblown competition the wholly misnamed European Champions Cup in which the bulk of teams aren't champions at all, it is so hard to reverse it. What a fuss the clubs made when UFFA rightly decided to cut out the second mini-League of that tournament next season. Once upon a time it was a genuine knock-out Cup with no dead games. Not now.