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FIFA proceeding slowly toward unified calendar to reduce conflicts.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, March 8, 2000) -- World governing body FIFA and its major member confederations are trying to work together to develop a unified world soccer calendar.

The idea is to limit so-called club-country conflicts that occur when international competitions are scheduled on the same dates as league matches, and star players are taken from their club teams for national team duty. The task is proving vastly more difficult than anyone could have imagined.

"Nothing I have been involved in, in my lifetime, has been this difficult," said Keith Cooper, FIFA's long time spokesperson and director of communications who was in Miami for the Gold Cup and a symposium to discuss the state of international soccer. "It's often a question of taking one step forward and a couple back. We are making progress for sure, but more slowly than we had hoped."

The adoption of the unified calendar is being accomplished in steps. First FIFA is trying to win agreement from its members as to when international competitions will be played. This would include major tournaments such as the World Cup, the European Championships, Copa America, CONCACAF's Gold Cup, and longer elimination tournaments like the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. Once that is in place, FIFA, through the confederations, has to win the cooperation of the major professional leagues to have them schedule off-days and off-weeks to accommodate the international competitions without conflicts.

Once this kind of unification has been accomplished, and now FIFA is shooting for 2004, the next step will occur. FIFA wants all professional leagues, everywhere in the world, to start and stop their annual schedules within the same calendar year, and to agree to take a full month off for international competitions and another month off when there is no competition, league or international, so players may rest.

The latter is especially important to Dr. Michel D'Hooghe, a pioneer in sports medicine in soccer who currently serves as head of the Belgium Football Association, member of FIFA's executive committee and chairman of its medical commission. He too was in Miami for the symposium.

"Competitions today start before others are finished," D'Hooghe said. "Players have no time to rest and to recuperate from injuries. We are seeing an epidemic of injuries of the anterior cruciate ligament -- stretches and ruptures. We rarely used to see these kinds of injuries before, and nowhere as serious. This is because the players simply do not have the time to recover. Players will carry an injury for years because they do not have extended periods free from competition."

Eventually, FIFA would like to see a unified February-November calendar, with the month of June off. December would be the month of rest D'Hooghe and others are pushing for. January would be time to begin training. League play would start in February, early in the month for some leagues, later for others. Play would be finished by the last weekend in November.

"We are getting resistance from quite a few areas," Cooper explained. "Much of it is very valid. How, for instance, can you tell a Muslim country it must play during Ramadan. You can't. Countries with traditional competitions, some a hundred years old, don't want to completely change the dates of those competitions: the FA Cup final in the cold of November instead of the a sunny day in May."

FIFA itself is going to have to make some hard decisions to accommodate a unified calendar. The World Cup will have to be held on exactly the same dates every four years. Moreover, FIFA will have to limit the number of its own international competitions. An example is the Confederations Cup that was held last summer in Mexico, and the fledgling World Club Championship staged for the first time in Brazil this past January. There will almost certainly be no room in the future for both.

In fact, this conflict may already be on the immediate horizon. When Canada won the Gold Cup two weeks ago, it was announced that in doing so it would become the CONCACAF representative to the next Confederations Cup and will reap millions of dollars that it badly needs to fund its soccer program. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they may not be another Confederations Cup.

With World Cup 2002 qualifying starting, there may be no way to schedule it for next year or even for the year after. If it comes down to a choice between the club championship and the Confederations Cup, FIFA will likely opt for the club tournament.

"It's less disruptive," Cooper explained. "You are taking a full team and not key players from a dozen teams."

FIFA's first steps towards this unified calendar will come this fall, and just looking at two dates shows how difficult this exercise is. On the weekend of September 2-3, European leagues will stand down to allow international matches. So many confederations are scheduling World Cup qualifiers.

Although CONCACAF has not made the announcement yet, it likely will schedule the first semifinal round matches for that weekend, which will mean the United States will start its attempt to qualify. The only problem is that that weekend is a full schedule for Major League Soccer and the league will lose its U.S. and other CONCACAF national-team players.

Things are more complicated on October 10. This will almost certainly be a Champions League date in Europe with all 32 teams playing. With the professional leagues shut down, a number of confederations are going to schedule World Cup qualifiers. There will be some bloody club-country battles as players will be forced to chose between World Cup and Champions League.

In this country, October 10 could prove a major problem. CONCACAF will probably schedule qualifiers for that date. It could also be the date of the third and final match of the MLS semifinals which will decide participants in the championship match five days later.

Even the Septemberís Summer Olympics in Australia are looming as a problem. Right now Olympic teams are allowed to bring along three players over age 23. The International Olympic Committee would like this raised to at least five, if not eliminate the age requirement altogether.

A number of European clubs are looking at losing key players for the month of September during which they will not only have league matches, but Champions League and UEFA Cup games.

Everyone seems to agree that conflicts must be reduced, and a unified calendar is the only answer. But then no one can agree on what that calendar should be.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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