Rocking the international boat
It has been part of the fabric of the football calendar since the inception of the game, yet the future of international football as we know it is coming under increasing pressure from all-powerful club managers.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, Spurs chief Harry Redknapp, Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff have been among those to join the chorus of detractors at an international schedule that may soon be forced into radical changes if clubs who wield increasingly more influence get their way.
The move to switch some qualifiers to Friday and Tuesday evenings for the Euro 2012 campaign was evidence that the demands of highly influential figures in the club game are being noted, but Wenger and company are unlikely to stop there.
If club chiefs forge ahead with their threats to force international bosses to insure players before they are allowed to perform for their country, smaller national associations would be among those plunged into a crisis as they would be unable to cover the wages of star players for an extended period if clubs were to sue them.
The Football Association of Ireland would be among those fearing such a plan as they would currently be facing a huge compensation bill from Wolves following striker Kevin Doyle's serious injury against Macedonia last Saturday, while the Welsh FA could also be facing a claim from Spurs following the much-discussed hamstring injury suffered by Gareth Bale.
So it may be that international football chiefs need to act quickly to protect their money-spinning road show and the following radical framework is being floated as a solution in a long-running argument that will be won by club sides sooner rather than later:
• Reduce the size of qualifying groups by forcing the international minnows to play a qualifying competition of their own to win the right to play top nations.
• Scrap friendly internationals during the domestic season and replace them with a handful of international squad get-togethers during the club season.
• Play all qualifiers in a one-month period during the summer. This would stop the interruptions during the domestic season.
• The extra weeks created in the domestic season could mean a later kick-off to the Premier League programme, with a late September start a possibility.
It would be an overhaul that would change the face of international football beyond recognition, yet before national associations dismiss this ground-breaking proposal out of hand, they should consider the benefits.
Imagine a scenario that sees nations contesting a host of competitive qualifiers over a sun-baked June and July, with momentum being built up by teams and manager in what could become a thrilling summer qualifying tournament in all corners of Europe.
Star players should be fresher, as the demands of playing three times a week in the domestic season will be relieved by the creation of additional weeks to play league and cup games, so winners may emerge on all sides.
Such a spectacle could revive the flagging interest in the international game and, with the desperately disappointing attendances at a host of international fixtures in the past few days suggesting interest is waning, a new-look national team set-up may be welcomed by all.
It may be impossible for club sides to get such a plan through UEFA and FIFA's numerous committees, yet Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp believes the future of non-competitive internationals needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
"We have the debate every year about international friendlies and you will not find a manager in Europe who does not think some of the dates are total madness," says the coach who is being strongly tipped to succeed Fabio Capello as England boss next year.
"The last thing players need after a long pre-season programme with their clubs is a friendly international in early August, but some organisations don't seem to worry about anyone but themselves in these situations. International associations should be careful not to rock the boat too much."
Cruyff's assessment of the future of international football is even more damning, as he suggests big-name stars are being 'killed' by the demands of national duty. "I'm not against national teams because the World Cup is a special tournament and everyone enjoys watching their international side, but some things need to change very quickly as we are killing the players," the ex-Barcelona boss says.
"Can you remember the last time we got to a World Cup and it was a fantastic spectacle? The answer is 'no' because players do not have enough of a break in the summer any more and they have no energy left and need a holiday rather than more games.
"Footballers need a vacation at the end of the season and that means starting domestic seasons a little later or doing something to change the way international football is structured. Play more games in the summer and create a longer holiday after? This is an option I would say. At this moment, no one is winning as national team football is suffering from a serious lack of quality."
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson echoed Cruyff's view when he claimed watching the World Cup has become "as painful as going to the dentist", while Arsenal chief Wenger suggests international football no longer holds the sway it once commanded.
"Club football is the modern obsession and national team football is something from a previous life in many ways," he says. "There are those who like to keep the values of the past, but many more want to move to a brighter future.
"Friendly internationals are a big point of annoyance for club managers and when you are in the position of losing a player like Robin van Persie for six months after he gets injured in a game arranged to raise money for an international association, as we did last season, it's no wonder the clubs get upset.
"I don't see international football ending any time soon, but moving the fixtures to Friday and Tuesday has to be the start of changes. There is much more that can be done to help the employees of these players and it has to happen."
Football is one of the few professions in the world that sees multi-million pound businesses compelled to release celebrity employees who are paid vast sums each week to work for someone else free of charge, yet the momentum is with club managers in their bid to change the landscape.
A plan that consigns international matches to a summer season spectacular may be the ultimate solution for revolutionaries who will not stop until they get their way.