“When the club versus country dispute arose
Small children were trampled in the exodus…”
So sang Half Man Half Biscuit in 2005. Little has changed since then as the greed and intransigence of football’s powers-that-be threaten to ruin the Joga Bonito’s pre-eminent position in the world of sport.
After all these years discussing the issue, football fans are still plagued by half a dozen international breaks a season. We are expected to shut up and suffer as the thrilling, multi-vehicle chase of club football is made to dutifully stop at the level crossing to allow the slow train of the international game trundle through.
You almost feel embarrassed looking at the fixture list for an international week: a fishing village versus an Italian hillock; a rock in the North Atlantic versus an Iberian goat farm; an ex-Soviet wasteland versus a Balkan state who cannot so much as accept a compliment about their snazzy new ‘do from their neighbour without using it as a pretext for a long and bloody civil war. That we must endure this tripe instead of getting to savour proper football like Liverpool-Everton or Stoke-Bolton is nothing short of a travesty.
Time and again, the major nations are forced to undertake arduous journeys to godforsaken backwaters to stay in flea-ridden hotel rooms and play in meaningless matches. Why should the world’s top players be used merely to fuel the pathetic nationhood fantasies of countries where the men are simpletons who carry chickens around under their arm all day, and the women are toothless and haggard by the time they’re old enough to be married off by their fathers in exchange for five bags of couscous and a sheet of corrugated iron? The reason these places are in such a state to begin with is because they are, in the words of Moe Szyslak, “loser countries”. Why should clubs who pay so much money to these players risk having them injured just so these wretched nations can be mollycoddled so?
There is a simple answer: croneyism. Sepp Blatter is reliant on the votes of the smaller nations for his merciless grip on power. This is the main rationale behind his constant sniping at the footballing superpowers, the Champions League and especially the Premier League. It ensures that we must wade through Faroe Islands-Austria and Senegal-Gambia instead of the almost guaranteed top-notch club action we so crave. Why is it that practically every city the world over is so desperate to stage Premier League matches? What am I bid for the “crucial” World Cup qualifier between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan?
So, to the crux. How can we improve this mess and streamline the calendar so that we get more of the football we want to see? I propose a three-part solution.
Firstly, a no-brainer: abolish international friendlies. The only thing anyone has ever learned from international friendlies is that there is nothing to learn from international friendlies. Get rid of these wastes of time and make room for the Premier League’s 39th round – in fact, why not a 40th and a 41st, too?
Secondly, move the African Nations’ Cup to the summer. European clubs take the best young African talent and give it the chance to flourish in the world game’s heartland and what do they get in return? Their African players taken off them slap-bang in the middle of the season (while still having to pay the players’ wages, of course). There would be the usual whining about summer being the rainy season in much of Africa, so to spare the poor darlings’ socks from getting soggy, the tournament should be held in Europe. Most of the players are based there as it is. The Africans can watch it on TV like the rest of us.
The third part of my plan seems, superficially, to be draconian and unworkable. On the contrary – it is, in fact, so simple and so beautiful that it has just got engaged to a League One footballer. There should be a reform of the World Cup.
The Premier League is the model: a breakaway that’s not quite a breakaway. Here is how it would work: get rid of the qualifying tournaments and invite eight teams to the finals instead. The invitees would be:
These are all, of course, past World Cup winners. Uruguay would be left out because it’s been ages since they won the World Cup.
The other two would be:
Spain (European champions)
China (to tap into the emerging Asian market).
The advantages of this move are obvious and manifold:
- Eliminating qualifying will cut out 99% of the club vs. country antagonism at a stroke. It would also free up dates for more club games – perhaps even a re-introduction of the second group phase of the Champions League.
- It means we wouldn’t have to sit through the turgid early weeks of the World Cup in its present format. We would no longer be confronted with the appalling one-sided encounters which so characterise the first round. It would also wipe out the risk of any of the major nations being knocked out early on and depriving the world of the chance to see the planet’s greatest players at the business end of the competition.
- It would spare the major teams the tricky task of negotiating a qualifying group in the first place. Thus would we avoid the type of inequitable situation faced by England in trying to make Euro 2008. Why should a team which was a mere penalty lottery away from the last four in the World Cup have to suffer the cruel fate which befell them?
- The World Cup should be played in Europe whenever possible. After all, this is where the vast majority of the TV money comes from, so it is only fair. The occasional tournament could be played elsewhere, such as one of the Gulf states or the United States, but only if the games are played in European prime time.
It is possible that this solution will be a mite too radical for the bloated monstrosities that sit on FIFA’s executive committee. It can, however, be easily modified in case the stragglers of the world whinge about not getting something for nothing (and mark my words, they would!). We could remove one of the automatic berths – let’s say Spain’s – and throw the remaining spot open to the winners of a qualifying tournament.
This would be organised in phases. Phase 1 would pit the very lowest-ranked teams in the world against each other. These are the kind of countries you can’t pick out on a map, not because your sense of geography is faulty, but because they are too small to be seen: Upper Lower Obscuria, the People’s Democratic Republic of Whatever-dever, Crapistan and the like. The winner of the group would progress to Phase 2 which would contain the next highest-ranked teams. The winners of this would go on to Phase 3, and so on.
The winners of Phase 17 would join those nations on the fringes of the world elite in the final, decisive Phase 18:
Two random South American countries who aren’t Brazil or Argentina
The African team with the highest number of Premier League players
United Arab Emirates (this means that should Israel win Phase 17, they would have to forfeit their place in Phase 18. Can’t stand in the way of progress.)
A simple accommodation can be reached between clubs and countries should there be a dispute about player availability for the qualifiers: the relevant FA could pay a fee to the player’s club – say, £5,000 per player per minute played (including stoppage time).
These solutions are the most sensible yet devised for this seemingly interminable debate. Of course, it is this very quality which makes it unlikely for Blatter and his army of sycophants to adopt it. But the need for action is imperative. The international game is an overgrown vine strangling the tree of club football. The bleeding hearts who would have us beholden to some quaint notions of “tradition” are hell-bent on checking the extraordinary leaps made by European clubs in the last twenty years, with the Premier League in the vanguard. The latter competition has proved itself beyond doubt to be the most popular, richest and therefore best in soccer history. This has not been achieved by pandering to history or considering the feelings of those at the fetid bottom of the pile.
The plain truth is that the Champions League and Premier League have become the pinnacle of football. It’s about time the game’s structures reflected this.
The smaller countries are bleeding the game dry. For the good of the game, they should be put to sleep.
Written by Fredorrarci, who also maintains a blog called Sport is a TV show.
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).