“It” arrives on Wednesday, the annual August date protected for national team friendlies—probably the least loved and most problematic fixture on football’s international calendar.
The official FIFA document that plans matches in four-year cycles, and orders clubs when to hand over their players for national duty, is giving the scandal-hit governing body a problem it doesn’t need.
On Wednesday, the marquee matches on a 50-game slate include Germany vs. Brazil, Italy vs. Spain, England vs. The Netherlands and the United States vs. Mexico.
Yet much of FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s increasingly hostile “football family” doesn’t believe the early season—in many countries, preseason—match slot is worth keeping. Not when it interrupts clubs’ tours and players’ preparation for the new campaign.
“It’s the international managers who aren’t very happy about matches in August,” France coach Laurent Blanc said last week, while reluctantly preparing to host Chile’s team that impressed at the Copa America last month.
“I don’t think it’s the best way to prepare for a season of international matches,” said Blanc, seeming to undermine the basic reason for an August match.
Club coaches are also unhappy.
Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola hasn’t even seen his $37 million off-season signing, Chile winger Alexis Sanchez, in training yet.
“We’re fighting a losing battle,” Guardiola said during the European champion’s US trip last week. “National teams control everything and will continue to set the agenda.”
Guardiola is also losing eight players to Spain duty until next Thursday, just as Bayern Munich is obliged by FIFA rules to hand over eight who have been selected for Germany and must report at least 48 hours before kick off.
Bayern loses team practice time seven days before beginning a Champions League playoff tie against FC Zurich. Advancing to the lucrative group stage is key to the image and income of Germany’s most storied club.
“That date in August is a very bad one and we have to change that. As soon as possible,” Theo van Seggelen, secretary general of the FIFPro players’ unions group, told The Associated Press.
Players are caught up in a long-standing fight for their loyalty between clubs, whose contracts they must obey, and countries, who have FIFA’s backing to use the players they want without guaranteeing to return them in a fit state.
Blatter’s re-election in June, with the endorsement of 186 countries, was a reminder that FIFA primarily answers to its 208 member federations, who send national teams to its competitions.
The international calendar fixes four-year schedules for the World Cup, continental championships, qualifiers and friendlies, after final approval from the FIFA 24-man executive committee.
However, European club officials were shocked to discover the detailed 2011-14 calendar finalised at a June 2010 FIFA meeting in Johannesburg.
In 2013, the calendar has 15 match dates—including 14 August friendly— plus the Confederations Cup, African Cup of Nations and CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments.
Long frustrated that FIFA appears to ignore his members, European Club Association (ECA) chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has called for a “revolution” to make football more democratic, and openly questioned whether Blatter is fit to run the sport.
“We feel that our requests have been ignored too much and for too long,” ECA vice chairman Umberto Gandini told the AP. “It is necessary to raise the bar and get attention to our case.”
Gandini said that canceling the August date was symbolic, and would show that FIFA respected clubs’ needs at a “delicate time of the new season.”
“It is merely used to generate revenues with little or no technical value,” Gandini, an AC Milan director, said.
The German and Brazilian federations will earn well from a sold-out 60,000 crowd in Stuttgart, and worldwide broadcast rights deals.
“The crowds and audiences cannot lie—these are big events,” said Philipp Grothe of the Kentaro agency that markets Brazil matches, and owns rights to nine others on Wednesday, including US-Mexico and Kazakhstan-Syria.
The German-owned agency claims to have revived the fading popularity of friendlies in 2005 by staging England’s 3-2 victory over Argentina in Geneva, setting a trend for glamour games in neutral venues.
“The concept we further developed with Argentina and Brazil was bringing these games back on the landscape,” Grothe told the AP. “Players are completely differently motivated.”
Still, FIFPro’s van Seggelen will argue for ending August international football when he and his colleagues on FIFA’s Task Force Football 2014, including Franz Beckenbauer and Pele, next gather in Zurich in October.
“I personally think FIFA will not have a problem in the future changing the date from August to September,” the Dutch lawyer said. “We cannot change it for next week, but next year at least. Then everybody seems to be happy.”
FIFA declined to say if the current calendar can be changed, but said it would consult widely to set the 2015-18 fixture dates.
“We will have in-depth discussions with all the stakeholders, including confederations, member associations, clubs and players, before finalising it,” FIFA said in a statement.
Europe’s confederation, UEFA, has an important role in the talks, and brokering peace between Rummenigge and Blatter.
“I don’t expect any permanent damage has been done,” UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino told the AP. “It’s not ideal, but in a relationship you always have ups and downs.”
Blatter has shown little willingness to speak with European clubs, whose $1 billion share of annual prize money from the Champions League matches FIFA’s total revenue.
Meanwhile, Blatter’s own members—or, the coaches they hire—are dissatisfied with the program FIFA gives them.
“I am not very happy for the players. I am not very happy for me,” England coach Fabio Capello said on Friday. “This period is really difficult.”