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Saturday, June 7, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

England still too selfish about international calendar


LONDON -- On the day England captain David Beckham made a televised plea to England supporters to behave at last Tuesday's friendly against Serbia and Montenegro and the Euro 2004 qualifying tie against Slovakia next Wednesday, UEFA rewarded Manchester City with a place in Europe for 2003-2004 as England had finished at the top of its Fair Play League.

Christopher Davies

So European football's ruling body, which had threatened the national team and English clubs with expulsion from its competitions if hooliganism reared its ugly head again gave City, the highest-placed club in the Premiership's Fair Play League not to qualify for Europe, a UEFA Cup berth for next season.

The English Football Association's representatives in international and European club football amassed more points than anyone else in UEFA's table where one of the fair play categories is the sporting attitude of supporters.

On one hand we have the best behaved teams, on the other hand the worst behaved fans. You couldn't make it up. Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Last Monday's announcement also came the day after newspaper revelations about the behavior of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and John Terry of Chelsea -- no strangers to unwanted headlines -- in La Manga, where England was on a training break in Spain.

Some workers at a Spanish hotel felt moved to complain about an incident (whatever it was) that happened at 3.30 AM. Exactly what happened when Ferdinand and Terry "suggested" to Pedro Perez, the manager of the Hyatt Regency in La Manga, that a maintenance man come as soon as possible to repair the pool table is unknown.

Only those involved, who have different versions, were witness to what was probably no more than a few regrettable seconds which made two pages in News of the World.

Hotel sources claimed senor Perez was manhandled, Ferdinand said it was all down to the language barrier while the F.A. said there was no brawl, which doesn't exactly deny the original charge.

Though alcohol was not involved and no punches were thrown, it was an incident waiting to happen because history shows that when England players go away to such a place something invariably happens.

Ferdinand said it was a misunderstanding after they challenged two of the hotel staff to a game of pool (as you do at 3:30 AM) -- they did not speak English "and suddenly they got upset."

There are some things in football that seem to be so very English and this is one of them and while it may not have been serious, both players appear to be guilty of the sort of stupidity that left them open to lurid tabloid tales.

IT IS not just the nocturnal wanderings of the Premiership millionaires that too often makes England stand out from other football nations.

For all its excitement, passion and atmosphere there is still an arrogance about English football that is unacceptable, particularly the belief that the game should be organized around its demands and no one else's.

As Sven-Goran Eriksson is a Swede he can only be an honorary little Englander but the head coach coach has soon been swept into the insular belief of islanders.

England's game against Slovakia comes a month after the Premiership ends.

"It's a crazy situation that you have to keep the players fit for a month after the season has ended," said Eriksson.

"FIFA, UEFA, the Football Association and the Premier League should take courses in planning."

Talk about blinkered vision. The fact is that June 11th, is a designated match date on the FIFA international calendar and there are Euro 2004 ties throughout Europe. It is not four weeks after the end of the Spanish, Italian, German, French or other domestic leagues but that is irrelevant, of course.

Only England matters -- it invented the game, after all.

Incredibly, and of course scandalously, FIFA and UEFA do not plan everything around the English season, preferring to take a wider look at everyone's situation before deciding on international dates.

Mind you, given the ongoing club vs. country battle in England there isn't a day in the entire year that would be suitable to all parties.

For the record, on the two designated Euro 2004 qualifying dates -- June 7 and June 11, which have been set in tablets of stone since the draw -- there are a total of 37 matches.

Eriksson also came up with the old chestnut that fixture congestion costs English clubs dearly.

He said: "When you come to March or April then players at Arsenal and Manchester United are tired as they are playing too many difficult games in too short a time. No one can convince me Arsenal and Manchester United are any worse than AC Milan or Juventus."

European champion Milan played 61 games in 2002-2003 and United 63, so presumably those two extra matches took it out of the men from Manchester. Why is it that only English players seem to become tired and not others?

And it it a case of a coach getting his excuses in first?

No wonder Australians call the English "Whingeing Poms."

Even Kevin Keegan was not entirely happy that Manchester City, which finished ninth in the Premiership, had been handed an unexpected route into Europe, its first taste of European football since 1979.

"We'll take it but it's not the way I want to get into Europe," he said. "I don't think it's right that a team can finish eight or nine points ahead of us and we get the place. I would rather have had a worse disciplinary record and finished higher in the league.

"They should give the place to a side that really deserves it on the number of points they have won."

The whole idea of UEFA's Fair Play League is that it rewards, er, fair play.

If ever places were given out for moaning England would dominate.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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