| FERGUSON: ‘Situation is bloody ridiculous’
London: Once, in what now seems like a different soccer world, friendly internationals were just that — non-competitive matches played to the mutual benefit of both teams.
Some were more prestigious than others and victory or defeat could have a major impact on teams, coaches and nations, as in 1953 when Hungary defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in one of the most famous friendly matches of all time.
But now they have come to represent one of the most contentious issues, fuelling club resentment at the power of national and international federations.
Fifa, the world governing body, and the European authority Uefa have both shifted ground to try to head off club discontent. But the rift is growing rather than narrowing.
In years gone by national team matches drew the biggest crowds and headlines.
In the early 1950s, West Germany drew crowds of 70,000 then 76,000 followed by 78,000 for home friendlies against Yugoslavia, Austria and Norway.
Spain packed out the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid to its then 125,000 maximum for games against France and England.
These were not isolated examples. In the days before television turned the World Cup into one of the wonders of the age and while Uefa was still furnishing its first little office — let alone launching the European Championship — prestige friendlies were the peak of the international season.
Balance of power
One of the most famous friendlies in football history came in November 1953 when Hungary won 6-3 at Wembley on a foggy Wednesday afternoon in front of 90,000 people to inflict England’s first home defeat by continental opposition.
But the days when a visit by Hungary could fill foreign stadia are long past. The balance of power within international football has changed along with its structure.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter may have launched a unified international calendar but squabbles between clubs and federations over player release are growing ever more frequent and acerbic.
There was widespread disapproval around Europe last November when France played a friendly in Australia and ripples of anger are still washing around the European game almost a week after Brazil and Argentina exacerbated tensions with their friendly matches in Japan and South Korea respectively.
Massimo Moratti, president of Italy’s Inter Milan, is considering a formal protest to the Argentine federation over the demands on striker Hernan Crespo and midfielders Javier Zanetti and Matias Almeyda.
“Argentina were leading 2-0 just over halfway through the game,” said Moratti. “Yet Crespo played 82 minutes and the other players had to play right until the end. I don’t understand the lack of consideration.”
Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, was similarly upset that Juan Sebastian Veron was too tired to start Saturday’s Premier League match against Newcastle United.
Ferguson said: “Juan had a 17-hour flight out then 14 hours back to London with a lot of hanging around before he finally got home. The situation is bloody ridiculous.”
The G-14 group of leading European clubs wants federations to compensate clubs financially for national team calls..
English Premier League strugglers Bolton Wanderers want compensation from the French federation after defender Bernard Mendy was injured with the French under-21s; he will be out of action for at least six weeks.
European clubs want enforced release for friendly matches scrapped. They say such games tempt coaches to be economic with the truth about the severity of injuries to ‘save’ their players from duty.
Fifa insists it must protect the sanctity of the friendly match for the greater good of the game and a spokesman told Reuters this week: “Fifa believes it is important for a national coach to have the opportunity to work with his players outside of competitive matches.
“This is the only way he can build a team, to experiment and develop not only team spirit but also various technical and tactical ideas. International friendlies also provide a national association with the chance to play teams from other continents.”
Uefa is ahead of Fifa’s game. The European federation believes in the value of friendlies but has acknowledged that the old system does not answer the needs of today’s club-empowered and financed game.
Last year Uefa produced various suggestions to provide a competitive structure for friendly matches. One proposal was for a direct knockout event, another for a league format similar to the Davis Cup in tennis.
Lars-Christer Olsson, Uefa’s director of professional football and marketing, said: “We need to make friendlies more competitive without losing the advantage they have for coaches to be able to test and school new players.”
Coaches have mixed views. Barcelona boss Louis Van Gaal is on record as supporting a limit on fixture demands to protect the welfare of players.
As Bayern Munich’s Ottmar Hitzfeld says: “We have to look after the health of the players. Quality suffers with too many games.”
England’s manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was infuriated by the Paul Scholes affair in September. Manchester United withdrew the midfielder from England’s squad for a friendly against Portugal then played him that same week in a Premiership game against Middlesbrough.
Eriksson will consider invoking Fifa’s five-day ruling to enforce player release ahead of future friendlies.
He says: “I don’t believe it was a case of cheating but, to avoid confusion in future, it would be better if everyone reports for duty and then lets another doctor (the England doctor as well as a club doctor) assess players’ fitness.
“When I was a club coach in Italy I did not like friendly matches. But they are essential to a national coach. You cannot finish a World Cup in June and then go straight into a European Championship qualifier in October without getting your players together at least once. We need to find answers which will keep everyone happy.” (Reuters)