Greedy G14 could ruin international football

IT MAY not stir the blood quite like a 25 yard volley to the roof of the net, a save in a penalty shoot-out or a last minute winner that lifts a cup or staves off relegation, but anyone who has ever fallen under football’s spell should sit up and pay attention to a compensation case which is currently before the Belgian courts.

Because, depending on the outcome, it could drive a stake through the heart of the international game.

The case is being taken by the Belgian club Charleroi, backed by 18 of Europe's richest clubs.

Charleroi are seeking compensation for the loss of their Moroccan midfielder Abdelmajid Oulmers, who was out for eight months after being injured in an international friendly against Burkino Faso in 2004. Charleroi's argument is that his absence hindered their chances of league and cup success for the remainder of that season.

But the enthusiastic involvement of the so-called G14 group of clubs points to the wider implications of the case against FIFA.

Should the clubs prove successful, then the national associations would be obliged to pay a player's club wages while he is on international duty and, in the event of the player sustaining an injury while playing for his country, the national association would also be required to cover his wages for the duration of his absence from the club.

In these days of often astronomical player wages, particularly in the case of elite international footballers, it won't require Eddie Hobbs to tell you that this would have serious consequences for national associations, especially in smaller and poorer countries.

Even here, in booming Celtic Tiger Ireland, the implications would be enormous.

Since the Charleroi case is likely to end up being referred to the European Court of Justice, FAI Chief Executive John Delaney was in Brussels this week lobbying the European Parliament and European Commission on the issues as they pertain to the national team here.

Delaney reckons that it would cost the FAI about €750,000 a game to cover the Irish team's wage bill, while the costs involved if players were out injured for a long period as a result of injuries sustained while playing for Ireland would run into millions.

"If the clubs are successful we would not be able to afford to play our stars in matches," was Delaney's bleak prognosis.

And that, of course, is only the Irish perspective this has implications for football all across Europe. Perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken so long for the tensions between club and country to erupt into something like a full-scale war. The sniping from club land has been going on for years, from players suddenly being withdrawn on the eve of an international friendly with some mysterious ailment, to the familiar whinge of the club manager bemoaning the fact that his striker will miss four weeks on account of his perplexing desire to play for his country in, say, the African Cup Of Nations, which the gaffer clearly regards as a piffling little no-mark tournament despite its strange ability to pack stadia and keep a whole continent glued to the box. Must be witchcraft, thinks the gaffer, as his thoughts return to the vital issue of whether he should only play one upfront for Saturday's classic against Portsmouth.

Look, no-one doubts that club football remains the lifeblood of the game, but even the hard-pressed gaffer, who can no longer see beyond the edge of his own training ground, must once have dreamed a grander dream that of playing for, or even managing, his country.

Is that a naïve thing to say? Increasingly, we are told that the international game is no longer where it's at, that the balance of power has shifted towards the clubs, that the Champions' League is now the ultimate showcase of quality and ambition. Well, try telling that to the Brazilians. Or try convincing the supporters of any of the countries taking part in this summer's World Cup. And, more to the point in these parts, those who won't.

Does anyone seriously think that even Liverpool's stunning European Cup win of last season could create anything like the level of national dementia that would attend an England victory in Germany? And for those who would argue that most of those celebrating won't be "real football people", your case might have more clout if your commitment to your team didn't stop at a replica shirt, a barstool and a flat-screen tv.

The Charleroi case may well be cogently argued on the basis of employment law and even glory be human rights, but only if one accepts that football is a business just like any other.

But, though the suits would have us believe otherwise, it clearly isn't. The essential meaning of football, tarnished though it may be, cannot be measured by accountants. For that job, you need a specialist who combines a knowledge of psychology and cardiology.

Think of Stuttgart, Genoa or Ibaraki, and tell me I'm wrong. As the debate intensifies, it would be heartening to hear more from the footballers themselves about the honour and importance of national service.

Unfortunately, under pressure from the clubs, premature international retirement has become an increasing feature of the game.

Alan Shearer lost his last chance of glory with Newcastle when they were dumped out of the FA Cup in a truly dreary game against Chelsea this week. The great man may have lost a yard of pace but had he chosen otherwise could still have finished his career at the finals of the World Cup.

But, presumably, the G14 would consider that a humiliating way to bow out.

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