In response to player concern, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) is examining a number of short and long term solutions to prevent players from having to choose between their loyalties to club and country. According to PFA Chief Executive Brendan Schwab, the players want to play for both, and all football fans deserve to see the best players in the most important games.
Football’s administrators throughout the world have a responsibility to develop a global solution in consultation with clubs and players that will remove this conflict once and for all. Schwab has prepared a discussion paper that looks at this important issue from the players’ perspective and highlights 3 predicaments the players would prefer to avoid:

1. urgently secure an overseas transfer from the A-League on the eve of the Finals Series to keep hopes of selection for the 2010 FIFA World Cup alive;

2. for the European based Socceroos – hope that Australia qualifies for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup even though most qualifiers are on non-FIFA dates; and

3. miss vital club matches for the month of January 2011 to play in the AFC Asian Cup, even though this may jeopardise a club career.
Read on to view the paper in its entirity.
The ultimate for any Professional footballer is to play for both club and country, and the fans deserve to see the best players in important games.  But, as every fan knows only too well, this is often not the case. But the question is why?

The answer lies not with the players, but the world’s football administrators, and the players are rightfully upset that their loyalty to one shirt over another is brought into question when the choice is thrust upon them.

Sadly, football administrators at all levels of the game do not fully respect the fact that our game needs both club and international football.  They give lip service to this but, when vital match scheduling decisions are made, political and commercial considerations create major conflicts.  As a result, players are placed in an untenable position of having to choose between their immediate employer and their National team.  It is a choice no professional footballer should have to make, and one that can be avoided by those responsible for running our game.

Let’s have a look at three choices facing Australia’s professional footballers at the start of 2010, a FIFA World Cup year, the complicating factors from the players’ point of view, and the solutions and opportunities available to our football administrators.

Choice # 1 – Leave your A-League club at the season’s most important juncture to keep your hopes of a World Cup berth alive.

To satisfy the requirements of Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek, players are being advised to join an overseas club in the January transfer window to ensure they are active throughout March, April and May in the lead up to the selection of the Socceroos squad in May 2010.

This sounds simple, and is certainly fair from Pim’s perspective.  He needs a squad that is both match fit and has been playing consistently in South Africa, as players who have been inactive for some months will definitely not be at the level necessary for World Cup football.

Of course, this discussion is damaging to the A-League.  Fans with dreams of trophies face the prospect of their key players walking out on the eve of the A-League Finals Series, not to mention the owners who have invested millions trying to create successful clubs.

Yet, unlike the football structures in many countries which can see the interests of the professional leagues and national teams often run into conflict, in Australia the very same people who employ Pim Verbeek also administer the A-League.

The Players’ Perspective

The A-League has proven to be highly attractive to many Socceroos, who have left overseas clubs to return to Australia.  Players of the ilk of Kevin Muscat, Archie Thompson, Craig Moore, Jacob Burns, Chris Coyne and Mile Sterjovski are among the many who have returned to give something back to the game and help realise their long held ambition of building an Australian based career path for Aussie footballers.  Yet, they are being asked to turn their backs on this.

Fortunately, players at Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United have 6 Asian Champions League games to play all the way through to May.  For the others, the A-League season may end anywhere between mid February and mid March, necessitating a move to meet Pim’s criteria.  If the January window is missed, a late move to China, South Korea, Japan, Sweden or Norway may still be in the offing as their windows stay open until the end of March.  Aware of this, the more established players negotiated special conditions into their contracts to allow them to move to accommodate Pim’s requirements.  Otherwise, the clubs are well within their rights to demand that the players sit tight and complete their A-League commitments.

Securing an overseas move at short notice is easier said than done.  The best countries for Australian players, such as England, Germany and Holland, are also the most competitive and it often requires a lengthy period for a player to establish himself with his new club.  The others which tempt – such as South Korea, China, Greece, Romania, Poland and Turkey – raise many cultural, player welfare and contractual issues that often see Australian players on the sidelines.  Indeed, many an overseas move falls sour and the likelihood of this occurring is increased where the move is poorly planned.  In effect, players are being asked to risk a successful A-League career in the hope of international selection.  If this happens, it is the player and his family who is left to pick up the pieces of his career.

The Solution and Opportunity

The reason this conundrum exists for players in the first place is because the A-League seasons ends in March.  This needs urgent review, for it is not in the interests of the A-League, the clubs, the broadcaster and league and club commercial partners that the quality and integrity of the competition is compromised at its most important point.  In the digital era, the media platforms exist to enable the A-League season to run right through to the week before the UEFA Champions League final in May each year.

Football administrators have also argued that the game needs to avoid direct competition with other football codes, though the seasons already overlap because we to start our season in August in order to finish in March.  Football arguably would be better placed to put its premium end of season content up against its competitors by running our finals in April and May, rather than the reverse.  This has also brought about an A-League season that does not respect all of the FIFA windows, further denying most A-League players the opportunity to compete for international selection for those matches where Pim selects a team of largely European based players.

There is an alternative for the FFA that may solve the problem and allows our domestic players to prepare without the current upheaval and uncertainty, to create an intensive camp environment for the best 23 A-League hopefuls, with preparation matches against sides at club and country level similar to those the Socceroos will face in South Africa.  Whilst this would not entirely replicate the elite levels of European club football, it would provide a controlled environment for Verbeek, avoid the complexities associated with short-term overseas transfers and allow players to protect their long term A-League careers.  Moreover, it would preserve the integrity of the A-League Championship on the eve of the Finals Series.

Choice # 2 – Play for Your European Club and Hope Australia Qualifies for the AFC Asian Cup in Your Absence

International selection is, unquestionably, the pinnacle for any professional footballer.  Unfortunately, this principle is not respected by the Asian Football Confederation, which schedules the Asian Cup qualifiers on non-FIFA dates.  The Socceroos’ players understand just how important Australia’s place in Asia is to the development of the game.  After the disappointment of 2007, we have a team even more determined than ever and aiming to win the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

The Players’ Perspective

Through their commendable performances over Oman in October and November, the Socceroos demonstrated their deep commitment to the AFC Asian Cup.  Some players have even compromised their relationship with their club manager by seeking a release for qualifiers outside of FIFA dates knowing full well their club is under no obligation to agree.

Should Australia not qualify, this will be because our “second XI” is not good enough.  But how is this good for Asian football?  What integrity is there in a tournament which, for example, will be without Asia’s number one ranked nation?  What justice is there for Oman, which has its only two games against Australia set down for FIFA dates?

This is not an “Australian” issue within the AFC.  Japan, South Korea and China, among others, all have some of their best players playing in Europe.  More Asian nations should aspire to do the same, in fact the AFC’s VisionAsia program is precisely designed to develop more footballers capable of playing at the highest levels.  UEFA manages to organise a professional qualification for the European Championships despite its congested fixture.  Why, then, can’t Asia, especially if it aims for football hegemony?

The Solution and Opportunity

The AFC must treat the FIFA international match calendar as sacrosanct in its regional scheduling decisions.  Should further flexibility be required, the solution lies in the AFC having greater political influence within FIFA including input into the international match calendar.

As with the A-League, the AFC Asian Cup is still a developing competition and requires its prestige to be carefully built over time.  That can only occur if the competition organisers value and respect their own competition.  Oman’s competitiveness against a full-strength Australian side, and the genuine pace and skill demonstrated by its team, shows that Asian football has depth and the opportunity exists to create great rivalries.  I personally attended Australia’s match against Indonesia in Jakarta in January 2009, where Pim was required to call only on A-League players.  The locals informed me that had the game been scheduled on a Saturday against a full-strength Australian side, then the Bung Karno stadium would have been at its 88,000 + capacity, not the 40,000 who attended, and still managed to create a great atmosphere.  Indonesia is a nation of 230 million people, with football the number one sport.  Clearly an Australia-Indonesia football rivalry would be great for the game.

Choice # 3 – Leave Your European Club for the Month of January to Compete in Your Continental Championships

In 2010, it will be the greats of African football, who will be asked to leave their clubs to fight for national glory at the 2010 African Cup of Nations.  The clubs – which literally pay millions and millions of dollars to buy and remunerate these players – will be without their services as crucial league and cup games are decided.  This places even further tension on the relationship between the big clubs and the national associations, with FIFA’s compulsory release and insurance regulations already the subject of legal challenge.

A year later, it will be Asia’s turn, with the 2011 AFC Asian Cup to be run from 7 to 29 January 2011 in Qatar.  Of course, every Australian player called up will be honoured.  However, not all will have the same standing at their club as, say, Didier Drogba has at Chelsea.  Many will return, having missed a month of club football, and have to fight to regain hard won positions in the starting line up.

Player welfare is not a big factor in vital decisions such as the scheduling of international tournaments.  Such is the climate of West Asia, January is, of course, the only sane time in which to hold the tournament.  Qatar, of course, is bidding to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in June, when the average temperature is in excess of 40 degrees Celsius.

Football has to be careful not to repeat the errors of the sport of cricket by creating meaningless competitions.  The national professional league, the Asian Champions’ League, the AFC Asian Cup and the FIFA World Cup are the four fundamental pillars of football in every Asian nation.  Each has to be nurtured, and brought into a happy coexistence.  The best players playing in the best matches must be the fundamental principle.  Without that, the players, the fans and the game all suffer.
And this makes the issue one of the utmost priorities for the future of football.

Brendan Schwab is the Chief Executive & General Counsel of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA).  He is also a member of the Board of FIFPro, the world players’ union, and the Chairman of FIFPro Asia.