x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Spanish FA spark new club versus country row

Their international friendly with Mexico on August 11, days before the start of the domestic season, brings up an old conflict in football.

Fernando Torres, draped in the scarf of Liverpool, his club side, after he won the World Cup, is currently sidelined with an injury he picked up in the final, ruling him out of the friendly against Mexico.
Fernando Torres, draped in the scarf of Liverpool, his club side, after he won the World Cup, is currently sidelined with an injury he picked up in the final, ruling him out of the friendly against Mexico.

In Mexico City, the posters are already on the billboards. The world champions are coming to town in less than a fortnight. The new leaders of international football will, promise the adverts, be bringing their ringleaders. Fliers for Mexico against Spain show Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain. They show Carles Puyol, the Barcelona leader and they show David Villa, the top-scorer for Spain in South Africa, all celebrating together.

Mexico versus Spain should indeed be a treat for the audience, a prestigious feather in the sombrero of the locals, who arranged the fixture as not only a sporting showpiece but as a culturally resonant event, part of the bicentenary of Mexican independence from Spain. Mexicans will get to see the stars of Soccer City in their very first adventure as world champions, exactly a month to the day after Andres Iniesta delivered the coup de grace of Spain's 1-0 triumph over Holland.

The deal for the August 11 international friendly had been agreed back in April, when the Spanish Football Federation were charging around US$1 million (Dh3.56m) for the right to play a non-competitive game against the reigning European champions. Since Spain became the World Cup holders, their price for exhibition appearances has doubled. That price should help fill the coffers of the Spanish federation, as they look forward to a busy schedule of lucrative invitations in the period between now and the defence, in 2012, of their continental title, and, in 2014, of their global one. It also creates the opportunity to show off their fresh-minted medals as they lobby among the world game's blazered community for the right to host the World Cup in 2018.

These would seem exciting times for international football in Spain, a country that has historically struggled to engage all of its public with the national team, what with the long shadows cast by those behemoths Real Madrid and Barcelona and what with the federal, sometimes argumentative and even separatist instincts of some of Spain's regions. Except that these exciting times, Spain's bold new era, have begun with a row: Mexico versus Spain is a battleground in a larger war where the noise of potshots being fired, threats launched and even lawsuits hinted has been especially pronounced since the World Cup ended earlier this month.

It is one of the oldest conflicts in football: club versus country. In the past three weeks, it has intensified. Spain's first outing with a star on the breast of their jerseys will be played out in Mexico City against a backdrop of various tugs of war. Real and Barcelona, the principal employers of the new world champions' playing staff, are lobbying the Spanish federation not to include their players for the Mexico fixture. Liverpool, the English Premier league club and La Liga's Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and other providers of Spain's personnel are also kicking up a stink.

The clubs' attitude is that international football has had and consumed its big, four-yearly stage, and the assets, the players, need to get back to their real work; that the calendar cannot serve two masters at the same time. Specifically, Barcelona point out that their eight World Cup winners are due back in club training on August 9, two days before the Mexico match. That the Catalan team compete in the domestic Super Cup on August 14; that, naturally and understandably their management staff are scornful of a trans-Atlantic flight to the high altitude of Mexico City that could disrupt the carefully, scientifically planned pre-season for the likes of Gerard Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Pedro and new signing Villa.

Puyol, for all that he is on those posters, has even been contemplating international retirement, mindful of the stresses and strains of serving both his king and his week-in, week-out paymasters in Catalunya. Xavi said of the Mexico-Spain game "there is not much logic in it". Yet the date is on the Fifa calendar as a recognised one for internationals, and Spain's contract with Mexico specifies that at least 60 per cent of the World Cup players should travel there - so 14 of the 23 who were in South Africa . Thus, there is no option of Spain's sending an entire second-string. Spain are not alone in this rupture.

In Germany, sabres are also being rattled about the chunk of the game's pie being eaten by national teams. The pride in the performance of Joachim Loew's World Cup side, and the reflected glory that a young, vibrant German squad was deemed to have cast on the Bundesliga club system, with its reformed youth initiatives, now meet with a sneer in the boardroom of Bayern Munich. "There is no sense in having international fixtures in August," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, executive president of Bayern, and a man who played in two World Cup finals and used to captain his country. "I hope that as of next season, this Fifa August date will no longer exist."

Rummenigge, a powerful voice in the Uefa Clubs Forum, knows exactly how that statement will sound at the German Football Association headquarters: there, they have already agreed an August friendly against Argentina for 2012. Outbreaks of envy from club football's movers-and-shakers just after a World Cup are predictable. One happened 12 years ago when, just after the successful French World Cup, a renegade group of clubs, led by AC Milan, egged on by Real, made the most serious threat yet to form a closed-shop European Super League, trying to reject the government of the Confederations, like Uefa and Fifa, who try to preserve the balance between the popularity of international tournaments and the economic charabanc that is club football.

Every four years since, there has been a tense period when you hear from clubs the loudest denials of the basic, symbiotic relationship between the two prongs of the game. So here is a reminder of that mutual dependence: World Cups draw in new audiences, feed the game's growth, from which club football gets a massive, knock-on boost. But what has happened in the summer of 2010 is that the collisions have impacted hard on several of the major domestic leagues. Perform well, like Spain have, and the clubs become angry and jealous. Perform badly as a national XI, and your Football Association blames the clubs.

Italy, the 2006 world champions, flopped so badly in South Africa that its FA mobilised an old notion of restricting the number of non-Italian players coming into Serie A and B. European Union law prevents them limiting EU players radically, but clubs were told they could recruit only one new non-EU footballer per team this summer. The response from the clubs? A threatened boycott of the start of the new league season. The menace has since faded a little, the Italians knowing that the reputation of their club football is not so strong that it can estrange potential audiences.

In England, the needs of the country are also in sharp focus after the wan display of the Three Lions in South Africa. The Premier League, a traditional, growling antagonist to international football, has agreed to a limitation on imported stars which will sharply redefine some of squads in the cause of promoting the young, native talent. Right now, no one dares complain too loud. But complaints will soon be heard from the first clubs at which a rash of injuries oblige managers to pick English players, probably very young ones, when they would have preferred to select foreigners.

The irony in this is that the 2010 World Cup was seized by a national team that, on the field, celebrated more than any world champions for a quarter of a century. A winning symbiosis between club and country. Spain played like Barcelona because most of their players either come from or have been nurtured by a successful Barcelona. But don't try suggesting to Barcelona in just under a fortnight - when they send a reluctant handful of their players to Mexico - that, actually, they had a terrific World Cup.

They might even mutter back that in practical terms a club like Chelsea had a better one: The English champions oversaw Michael Essien and Mikel John Obi recuperating from injury instead of playing for Ghana and Nigeria; they saw Nicolas Anelka mutiny his way to an early ticket home and probably to permanent freedom from international wear-and-tear. Their Ivory Coast players came back at the earliest opportunity - leaving time to be refreshed for August - and Chelsea's England players not much later, each of them giving a strong impression that international football was far less rewarding to them than their day jobs.

The likes of Ashley Cole and John Terry risk being as loudly booed when they next play for England at Wembley as they are cheered when they kick-off the new domestic campaign at Stamford Bridge. In cases like theirs, club affiliation can seem a lot more comfortable than national humiliation. sports@thenational.ae