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Dec 15, 2009

Arsene Wenger draws battle lines in international dispute

Arsene Wenger knew he would create headlines aplenty when he declared his intention to take legal action against the Dutch FA in a bid to claim compensation for the injury Robin van Persie suffered in a friendly international last month, yet he may have had the broader picture in mind as he leapt head first into the club vs country issue.

While Arsenal boss Wenger may not genuinely believe his pending court action will result in a financial settlement in his club's favour, the Frenchman is clearly hoping his bullish stance will lay the foundations for what he sees as a long-overdue revolution that would rock international football to its core.

Make no mistake, Wenger is a powerful voice in the football world and his determination to "redress the balance" between national federations that take players and the clubs that pay them will send a shiver down the spine of FIFA officials who have long been bracing themselves for this battle from the increasingly influential group of elite European clubs.

Wenger's fury at Van Persie's serious ankle injury has been heightened by the fact that the Dutch FA's medical staff initially misdiagnosed the injury as a minor problem, with his frustration made all the more acute by the fact that his star striker was crocked while playing in what many would regard as a meaningless friendly at the end of a long qualifying campaign.

It means Van Persie could become to international football what Jean-Marc Bosman is to the free transfer, with Wenger apparently determined to push to the highest of levels his long-standing objections to the current setup of the international game after his comments in several British newspapers over the weekend.

"There is a lot wrong in our sport at the moment and much of it is to do with international football," says Wenger. "The clubs are playing a lot of money to the players and yet we have no say whatsoever in what happens when they go away with their national side. If they get injured they should come straight back to their clubs, but often they stay with their national team doctors and this cannot be right.

"The main issue here is we have a serious lack of respect towards the clubs. National federations can use players who are employed by clubs on very big salaries and do with them as they wish. They take players, kill them in a friendly game and then send them back and say good luck. I appreciate that players want to represent their country, but there has to be more respect for the clubs."

Wenger initially allowed his frustration over the Van Persie situation to boil over in front of the media, but the dust is now settling and a more focused line of attack is being taken up by this veteran manager who seems keen to put himself forward as a crusader for justice.

Every club manager would support the changes to the international setup Wenger is proposing, but it needs one of them to take on FIFA in what would be a bitter showdown and after years of posturing, the battle lines for one of the game's most significant wars are about to be drawn.

"The schedule of the game at international level has to be looked at because the way things are at the moment is a joke," believes Wenger, whose side lost back-to-back Premier League game against Sunderland and Chelsea after the most recent international sabbatical.

"I believe 100% that we lost at Sunderland because of the international situation. We had 14 players away and it is not possible to prepare a team in two days when they come back tired or injured. Our performance was well below what we would expect as a result, but how can I get a team ready for an tough away game 48 hours after players return from an international? You would need to be a magician and I would say it is almost impossible.

"Club managers have to be given more time to get on with their own work and if there has to be two qualifiers in a few days, the first of these should be played on Friday and the second on Tuesday. At least the club managers would then have a chance to prepare a team for Premier League games the following weekend.

"I also believe friendly internationals should be banned during the season. Most of the time, these matches are arranged by the federations just to make money or for diplomatic or political purposes. Maybe England are trying to get the World Cup in 2018, so they offer a friendly to a nation to win some votes. This kind of thing happens all over the world.

"To be fair to the English FA, they are one of the best in this situation because they paid compensation to Newcastle when Michael Owen was injured at the last World Cup, but they are the only ones doing this if players get injured in an international. I believe Newcastle had an insurance of around £50,000 a week to cover an injury to Owen and the English FA made up the difference for as long as he was out. I see that as a fair compromise."

The issue of national federations paying for players who pick up injuries on their watch is one that will have all involved quaking as the insurance policies that would need to be taken out ahead of each round of internationals would be colossally expensive, leaving many smaller nations in a position where they may not be able to field star names for certain games.

Could the Football Association of Ireland in Dublin afford to pay for Robbie Keane or John O'Shea's wages if they are injured playing in a World Cup qualifier? And, even more significantly, how could the Togo FA begin to compensate Manchester City if lavishly-paid striker Emmanuel Adebayor was damaged in the line of national duty? As you might expect, Wenger has a solution to this thorny issue.

"I accept that the less wealthy nations may struggle to pay wages and a country like Togo could not afford to cover the salary Adebayor earns, but this is where FIFA and UEFA have to step in," he adds. "They have funds generated from the big tournaments they organise and maybe they can be the guarantors.

"Compromise has to be found because we have a situation at the World Cup finals next summer where clubs are paying players to represent another team. It is good news for the players as they get bonuses from their federations as well, but this is a strange situation."

Football is one of the few professions where a multi-million pound employee can be plucked from his job free of charge and thrown into the line of fire solely for the benefit of another organisation and Wenger is intent on changing that uneven landscape for good.

Okay, so the value of a player can increase if he succeeds on the international stage, but the Arsenal chief vehemently believes the risks heavily outweigh the benefits after several years of seeing his finest talent condemned to the treatment table by international exploits.

His claim for compensation from the Dutch FA over the stricken Van Persie may just be his way of putting the issue of international reform firmly at the heart of the football debate as with a World Cup year looming large, Wenger's campaign could become one of the big stories in 2010.

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