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talking point International breaks have long been an inconvenience... this weekend, it is an intrusion

Players and managers – not governing bodies – must lead the discussion on reform

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Club clash: Liverpool’s Alisson is expected to be in the Brazil starting XI for their clash with Uruguay tomorrow, ruling him out of the Premier League game against Watford on Saturday

Club clash: Liverpool’s Alisson is expected to be in the Brazil starting XI for their clash with Uruguay tomorrow, ruling him out of the Premier League game against Watford on Saturday

Club clash: Liverpool’s Alisson is expected to be in the Brazil starting XI for their clash with Uruguay tomorrow, ruling him out of the Premier League game against Watford on Saturday

The Premier League has a credibility issue on Saturday. For a long time I have considered international breaks an inconvenience. This weekend, it is an unacceptable intrusion.

Eight Brazil players and three from Argentina will be among the Premier League’s South American contingent representing their countries in the early hours of tomorrow morning.

The following day, Liverpool are resigned to being without goalkeeper Alisson – opening the door for Ireland’s Caoimhín Kelleher – and midfielder Fabinho at Watford. Manchester City are likely to face Burnley without Ederson and Gabriel Jesus. Chelsea are expected to miss Thiago Silva, Manchester United Fred, and Leeds Raphina.

Aston Villa No 1 Emiliano Martinez is a doubt for his side’s game with Wolves. And though Tottenham’s Brazilian Emerson Royal and Argentinians Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Romero have longer to recover because their club play on Sunday, a 12-hour flight through different time zones is no preparation for a Premier League fixture.

Although all the title-contending clubs are affected to some extent, the integrity of the match day has been undermined due to avoidable, external circumstances.

It is inexcusable that Fifa have allowed World Cup qualifiers to be scheduled at such a time which means the clubs paying the players’ salaries – in some cases around £250,000 (€295,000) a week – cannot reasonably use them in an important domestic match.

There should have been compromises to stop this happening. Brazil and Argentina’s first games of this break were last Friday. Even accounting for the disruption caused by the pandemic, they should have been able to reschedule three games in two weeks without it impeding their clubs.

The threat of a suspension if these players do not accept an international call-up means the clubs have been bullied into losing their own employees; Fifa are able to flex their muscles to promote their own tournaments regardless of how much it undermines the domestic game.

At a time when the governing body is lobbying for support for its reforms, it is no wonder so many players and managers are unhappy.

Not so long ago, I received a call from Fifa’s chief of global development Arsene Wenger as he continued his mission to gather support for a biennial World Cup.

Naturally, Wenger is someone I hold in the highest regard, who has many good ideas on how the game should evolve and genuinely wants the best solution to prevent the stop-start introduction to every domestic season.

With regards the need for a radical change to the international calendar, Wenger was preaching to a converted audience.

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The European qualification rounds for major summer tournaments are of low quality, and are often a boring interruption to the domestic campaign, rarely pitting the best versus the best.

Some of the qualifiers look more like pre-season friendlies, where a manager can make 10 changes and still win easily.

We see too many games where a poor team with 11 men behind the ball persist with trying to keep the score down when they are two or three goals behind.

Three international breaks before Christmas is too much. It would be better if it was reduced to one longer break in mid-season, and then ending the domestic campaigns earlier to enable a series of qualifying rounds in May or June. That would also help national coaches, building momentum with back-to-back games.

Where Wenger lost me was in suggesting there should be more World Cups.

The reforms of Fifa and Uefa have added to rather than solved the problem of congestion. To be fair, the UEFA Nations League has produced a higher standard of international football, but when replacing meaningless friendlies with competitive internationals, the end result is still too many games, increasing the chances of top players getting burnt out or injured. And it still does not disguise the reality that club football is vastly superior and far more satisfying for the game’s connoisseurs.

My suspicion is that the idea of a biennial World Cup is rooted in Fifa’s envy of the greatest football competition – the UEFA Champions League.

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Roman Abramovich, second left, with Cesar Azpilicueta, second right, and the Champions League trophy (Adam Davy/PA)

Roman Abramovich, second left, with Cesar Azpilicueta, second right, and the Champions League trophy (Adam Davy/PA)

Roman Abramovich, second left, with Cesar Azpilicueta, second right, and the Champions League trophy (Adam Davy/PA)


That’s where the highest-quality football is played, especially from the quarter-finals onwards. The best players and managers measure themselves against success in that competition every season.

For Fifa, a biennial World Cup will absorb more of the wealth and attention to their flagship event, increasing revenue from sponsors and broadcasters.

Naturally, there will be support from those regions where there is a shortage of elite football, increasing their opportunities to be host nations.

It is interesting to note the biennial World Cup idea was first proposed by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

I was on a Zoom conference call with Wenger with other ex-players to discuss the idea. One of his arguments was there need to be more chances for players born in those countries lacking the infrastructure and opportunities provided by more developed footballing nations.

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Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been behind the proposals (Mike Egerton/PA)

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been behind the proposals (Mike Egerton/PA)

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been behind the proposals (Mike Egerton/PA)


“If you were born with the same talent but you were born in Yaounde, London or Hanoi you have not the same chance to become a great football player,” he said recently.

While they are noble sentiments, it does not follow that nations will inevitably improve simply by being thrust into a higher level. Andorra and San Marino’s decades of poor results tell us that.

By the end of my discussions with Wenger and other ex-players, I thought, ‘why are you asking us about solutions instead of the current players?’ Listen to those who must play all these games.

The views of Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois carry far more weight than those playing 20 or 30 years ago.

“We’re not robots,” said Courtois this week. “If we never say anything it will always be the same. They just care about their pockets.”

These sentiments were especially well-timed given they were made after a third/fourth play-off game after the Nations League semi-finals. Those play-offs are among the most absurd, unnecessary fixtures, never wanted by the players involved, nor remembered by anyone watching.

In their push for a biennial World Cup, voices such as those of Courtois will be as much an inconvenience for Fifa as they are Uefa.

Fifa will continue to hunt for supporters whose agenda aligns with their own – national bodies with ambitions to host the tournament, or ex-professionals eyeing ambassadorial jobs or sponsorship deals.

The most credible opinions are those of the contemporary, elite coaches and players who must deal with the constant physical and mental pressure of travelling around the world and delivering their highest performance levels 12 months a year.

Until all the governing bodies start listening to them, there is no prospect of a reasonable fix for an unreasonable and increasingly unsustainable football calendar.

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