Football: no reform if clubs call shots

UEFAEurope's top football clubs are meeting in Geneva today with a list of complaints that illustrate the game's club versus country divide. The clubs are at odds with governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, but the reforms they are pushing won't address the most basic questions of all.
Uppermost on the list of complaints is the number of international games being played. The clubs are angry about the expansion in the number of international friendlies, which places greater demands on their players, and there's an accompanying row about compensation for players who get injured.

Under the calendar agreed until 2014 there is a limit of 12 international friendly games in a season. FIFA is proposing five more. UEFA, meanwhile, has proposed international games are all played in two blocks, one in autumn and the other in early summer.

UEFA under pressure

The European leagues do not want their seasons disrupted for extended periods. They want internationals played in 10-day double headers and want the August international date abolished. They also want UEFA to put a proper insurance scheme in place before the 2016 European championships.

At the moment, UEFA and FIFA only offer compensation for releasing players, not insurance. That's left to national associations such as the FA. The European Clubs Association says clubs received less than 1.5% of the revenue from the 2010 World Cup to cover the release of players.

The clubs also want greater transparency and 'reform' at FIFA. ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has called the current FIFA regime under Sepp Blatter "corrupt". But the clubs' idea of reform is greater say for the clubs, and this indicates the limitations of their zeal.

Club v country

What the row shows is the increasing gap between club and international football. And it's international football that is losing ground, despite the lip service paid to the world game. Clubs are businesses which can make money, while international teams are brands that generate income in a different way.

Put simply, players are assets for the clubs – so they don't see why other people should benefit from them, or why they should risk their assets for the benefit of others. And increasingly, it's club football that players and fans identify with.

When the FA launched the breakaway Premier League 20 years ago, there was much lofty talk about this benefitting the international side. But what the move did was make the FA the executive committee of the Premier League brand and its minority of member clubs, rather than the custodian of the national game it still likes to claim to be. The clubs come first – evidently.

With football clubs run as businesses, the 'solutions' put forward by clubs will inevitably be for their own benefit. So it's wise to treat any 'reform' proposals emanating from the clubs with extreme caution. And it's instructive to consider what's not being suggested too.

Champions League

If the concern is that there are too many games, why not slim down the bloated Champions League and the morbidly obese Europa League, making them more geninue knockout competitions between the best teams in Europe? This would reduce demands on players, eliminate meaningless games and free time for international teams to develop.

But the clubs will never propose this. UEFA's European competitions are designed so that the current 'big' clubs have less chance of being knocked out and so of playing less lucrative European games. The current structure also concentrates the financial rewards for success at the top so much that the gap between the successful and the unsuccessful widens, so reducing competition.

This in turn incentivises clubs to spend big to get to the top, and then to worry later about how to stay there. Something which flies in the face of UEFA's stated intention to impose 'Financial Fair Play' – a proposal with its heart in the right place but which has been turned into another way of preserving the status quo by the clubs.

While the clubs call the shots, the game will never be reformed. Anyone serious about reform needs to work out how to move to system which makes the clubs servants of the game, rather than the game the servant of the clubs (and in turn of the TV companies which bankroll them).

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