It was no surprise that the British press played up possible disagreement between Steve McClaren and Sam Allardyce over whether Michael Owen should play for England so soon after groin surgery.
The fact that in the summer of 2006, they had both been in contention for the position of England manager made for an interesting backdrop to the story. McClaren was finally chosen, and appointed England manager in August 2006. This summer, Allardyce moved from Bolton Wanderers to Newcastle United, as he felt that he had a better chance of winning trophies with Newcastle United.
The presence of Michael Owen in the Newcastle squad must surely have been a factor. With the goalscoring prowess of strikers such Owen and Obafemi Martins, Newcastle were clearly a better bet for winning silverware than Bolton. Of course, having top players in the squad is of not much use if they are not fit to play.
Since signing for Newcastle in August 2005, Owen has only made 20 appearances in the Premier League for the club, only about a quarter of the league matches played by Newcastle in that time. After recovering from a metatarsal injury suffered in a league match on 31 December 2005, Owen suffered an injury playing for England in the 2006 World Cup, which kept him out for most of the 2006-07 season.
Newcastle would clearly have been concerned about Owen playing for England in its recent internationals against Estonia and Russia after undergoing groin surgery at the end of September 2007. With a remarkable new technique used by his surgeon, Owen was back for Newcastle 8 days later, and scored in its 3-2 win over Everton on 6 October 2007 after coming on as a substitute for the last 15 minutes.
Yet despite Newcastle’s concerns, with Emile Heskey and Andrew Johnson both out with injuries, McClaren needed Owen to play both matches for England, including the match in Russia, which was to be played on an artificial pitch, which carries a greater risk of injury. In the end, Owen came through both matches (including 90 minutes on the artificial pitch in Russia) unscathed.
Under FIFA rules, clubs must release players for a certain number of internationals each year. The players are employed by football clubs, which pay their salary. The clubs are not compensated for the time that the players spend with their national teams. If players are injured while on international duty and are unavailable for their clubs, the compensation paid to the clubs is small, and hardly covers the cost to the club.
Further, with top players from all around the world now playing in Europe, and international competitions in Asia, Africa and the Americas sometimes played during the European football season, European clubs are at risk of being with out the top non-European players at key stages of their domestic season. For example, the African Nations Cup took place in January and February 2006. Top African players, such as Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona and Cameroon, Didier Drogba of Chelsea and Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Chelsea and Ghana were not available for their clubs during this period. There was almost a sigh of relief from Arsenal when Togo failed to qualify for the 2008 African Nations Cup, as it meant that they would not be without the services of Togolese international Emmanuel Adebayor in January and February 2008.
The top clubs in Europe have been unhappy with this situation for some time. The grouping of top clubs, known as the G14, has supported legal action against FIFA. The G14, initially a grouping of 14 clubs, which has expanded to 18 clubs, comprises of Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale (from Italy), Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal (from England), Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia (from Spain), Marseille, Paris St Germain and Lyon (from France), Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen (from Germany), Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven (from the Netherlands), and Porto (from Portugal).
In 2004, the G14 complained to the Swiss Competition Commission that the FIFA rule which required clubs to release players for international duty without any compensation was an illegal competitive restriction. FIFA is based in Switzerland.
In 2005, the G14 lent its supported to a claim brought by Belgian club Charleroi against FIFA in the Belgian courts for compensation after its Moroccan international Abdelmajid Oulmers was injured playing for his country, which put him out of action for 8 months. Although he was not available for Charleroi during this time, the club was nevertheless obliged to continue to pay his salary.
FIFA’s counter argument is that many of the poorer nations, especially those in Africa, would not be able to afford to secure the release of their top players from their European clubs
Including both international and club commitments, the top players can be expected to play up 60 matches a season when fit. As the game grows faster and more physical, the demands on players increases. Squad rotations are one way that clubs deal with the issue. FIFA would like the top divisions of European leagues to limit themselves to 34 games a season. The top leagues in Spain, Italy, England and France all have 20 clubs, which equates to 38 league games a season (with each club playing the remaining 19 clubs twice, home and away). Clubs have no interest in reducing the number of matches they play to make room for more international matches. The top European clubs are run as businesses, and with fixed costs in salaries and stadia, clubs want to be able to maximise revenue by playing as many matches in a season as possible.
Ultimately, most top players know that their huge salaries are paid by their clubs, not their national federations. The days when players such as Bryan Robson might be prepared to lose a limb playing for their country are gone. Unless a player is extremely patriotic (and these days such players are few and far in between), or is looking to establish himself on the international stage in order to get a new improved deal with a new club, most top players these days hold back from giving 100% when playing for their country, in order to avoid an injury that might keep them out of action for their club.
The top European nations have underperformed at the last few World Cup and European Championship Finals, partly due to fatigue after a long season, and partly due to their top players holding back from giving 100%.
Steamlining the international football calendar may be one solution, but it can only be a partial solution. Ultimately, FIFA and the continental confederations, which benefit the most from international competition, must bear a greater part of the financial burden for securing the services of top players for their national teams.