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Reduce friendly matches, not Champions League games

by Christopher Davies

LONDON — Tord Grip, the assistant to England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, once sat next to a supporter on a plane bound for a game in Germany. The fan remarked to the Swede who watches at least three games each week at home and abroad: “You must have lots of air miles.”

Christopher Davies

Misunderstanding what the supporter had said but not wishing to be rude, Grip replied: “Yes — and I try to reply to them all.”

There were lots of air miles (if not e-mails) by players earlier this week for international friendlies which are as popular with club managers has injuries.

The word friendly is virtually guaranteed to change the mood in an instant for managers who are fed up with their players participating in what they see as meaningless matches, coming home tired or with an injury which affects their club performance the following weekend.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, spoke to the Brazilian Football Federation to secure the release of Gilberto but the midfielder had to fly to South Korea to play for the world champions in Seoul on Wednesday.

“A 12-hour flight there, 12 hours back, eight hours time difference and all to play half a game,” said Wenger. “It’s madness.”

Perhaps, but Brazil is sponsored by Nike which uses these friendlies as part of its promotions, so everyone has to go along with it.

Manchester United’s Juan Veron had a similar journey for Argentina, which traveled to Japan. Sir Alex Ferguson’s response to his player’s marathon trek was less printable — United has a mid-day game against Newcastle on Saturday and given its injury list (no Roy Keane, David Beckham or Nicky Butt in midfield) Veron will almost certainly have to play even if he’s not sure what day it is.

The Republic of Ireland played Greece in Athens and the game provided the strongest of arguments against international friendlies at a time when clubs have what they perceive as rather more important matters to concentrate on, such as the Premiership or Champions League — in some cases both.

Ireland has no manager following Mick McCarthy’s resignation, no general secretary after Brendan Menton stepped down and before the Republic left for Athens, the equivalent of an entire team withdrew because of injuries.

Caretaker manager Don Givens had to cancel the Sunday afternoon “loosener” training session because by lunch time only six players had turned up. They went for a stroll instead.

It is hard to believe there would have been 11 withdrawals had this been a Euro 2004 qualifying tie or even if McCarthy’s successor had been in place.

Yet one-by-one groin strains, sprained ankles and bad knees appeared and Givens’ squad for Greece comprised 18 players, including three goalkeepers, which at least eased any selection headaches he may have had.

The Republic’s strike force was Glen Crowe of Bohemians, the first League of Ireland player to play for the Republic’s senior team since 1986 and Gary Doherty, a Tottenham defender, emergency forward and almost permanent substitute. It was probably the most unlikely partnership in Ireland’s history.

England took a more politically correct option with Eriksson deciding on a get-together rather than a friendly.

On Monday evening Eriksson and the squad discussed the World Cup and the early Euro 2004 qualifiers while the following afternoon there was a training session before having dinner with The Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Next season UEFA is reducing the maximum number of games in the Champions League from 17 to 13 to ease the work load on leading players. The second group stage will be replaced by a straight knockout, yet the mini-league provides precisely the type of games players want to take part in.

They love to play against Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and company. What they don’t want to do is travel half the way around the world (or, indeed, anywhere) for an international friendly.

UEFA seems to have shot itself in the foot on this one. The 16 clubs involved in the second phase of the Champions League are the cream of European football. Four from Spain and Italy, three from England and Germany with the likes of Ajax, FC Basel and Lokomotiv Moscow providing intriguing alternatives to the big battalions.

There is barely an unattractive game, yet UEFA is scrapping the second stage for a knockout system which will see teams going away from home and putting up the shutters to get what in football parlance is called “a result.”

The result will be dour, defensive displays rather than the more open style a league system inspires.

The clubs are against the switch for financial reasons, the players prefer things as they are and television says the more games it can broadcast the better value it gets for its contracts. Yet UEFA, in the form of chief executive Gerhard Aigner, who is the driving force behind the initiative, is pressing ahead with the change.

Ask the clubs and the players what they want to lose from the football calendar and they will say international friendlies of which there are usually four per season — the number of matches UEFA is saving in the revamped Champions League.

There have been many memorable moments of commentary where those concerned have suffered from foot in the mouth disease.

Ron Atkinson, the former Manchester United manager, could probably have chosen a more apt phrase to describe Iraq’s overly physical style. “Iraq don’t take any prisoners,” he said.

Last week John Aldridge, the ex-Liverpool striker and Tranmere manager, was analyzing the Champions League tie between Switzerland’s FC Basel and Liverpool and came up with this gem.

“At 3-0 down I can’t see Liverpool coming back,” said Aldridge. “They’ve given themselves a mountain to climb. In fact they have to climb Everest, which is just around the corner from here.”