The English tabloids were full of indignation this week for players withdrawing from the England squad ahead of the friendly with Denmark. But the FA is fighting back. According to the Daily Mirror, it is to ‘stun football next month by launching a long-awaited fightback against Premier League clubs that sabotage the England team’ – any player failing to report for England duty midweek will be banned from playing for their club at the weekend. Most observers of English football of the past twenty years won’t be holding their breath – gradually we have watched the Premier League push the FA into the shadows as it becomes the dominant body in our domestic game.
A case in the Czech Republic this week has shown that some players are not as good at skiving as ours. Three Sparta Prague players had withdrawn from the international matches – Vaclav Kadlec, Tomas Pekhart and Croat Manuel Pamic, the former two with a virus and the latter with a knee injury. However, on Tuesday all three helped Sparta beat Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 in the Marbella Cup, a friendly tournament featuring Eastern European clubs.
The deceit was only discovered when Zenit accidentally ‘sold out’ the Sparta players by posting pictures of the match on the official club website. It wasn’t even as if they could claim a miraculous recovery or an administrative error – all three were wearing shirts of other squad players to disguise their true identities, giving the whole affair a schoolboy feeling. Sparta has been forced to apologise and remove data from its website stating that both goals in the game had been scored by Pavel Kadarabek, when in fact the supposedly ill Kadlec had got a brace. The incident is endemic of the snobbery that has grown at big clubs since around the time the European Cup Winners’ Cup disappeared and managers began changing whole teams during friendly internationals. This snobbery sees certain competitions (the Europa League, the FA Cup and friendly internationals are three good examples) as being inferior to other types of football.
Despicable as this attitude may seem, from the players’ point of the view the issue is that there is too much football these days. The number of games in European tournaments has increased in recent decades, with little giving way. The lack of willingness from players is having a knock-on effect with fans, judging by decreasing attendances at the ‘lesser’ tournaments and fixtures – England’s game with Denmark this week being a case in point.
There is a simple answer to this – less football. It is time to accept that times have changed – people have less money than a few years ago, and the novelty of the mass commercialisation of football is beginning to wane. As well as making the Champions League and Europa League more exciting and less predictable by turning them back into straight knockout affairs, friendly internationals could be renamed to reflect what they essentially have become – B internationals. Streaming national sides in this way would increase competitiveness for the A side and lower expectations for friendly games – prices could even be lowered, and matches could take place away from the usual big grounds.
Even if players are strongarmed into turning up for international matches in the future, it is unlikely the end product will be any the better for it. A better solution would seem to be less football, or more honesty about exactly what is being watched. Whatever the case, something needs to be done if football is to become fresh and exciting again…
Saul Pope is the author of two works of fiction set in Russia: ‘New Holland’ and ‘Russia, The Man and Jonathan David’. He also writes for the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’.