The idea of a “39th game” is meeting opposition from practically anybody approached for a view on the proposals, with over 11,000 verified signatures already on an online fans’ petition against the idea. (To add your name to the petition, visit the Football Supporters Federation website and follow the instructions.)
One of the latest football figures to speak against it is Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez, who says Liverpool chief executive shares the same view as he does, further casting doubt on Premier League boss Richard Scudamore’s claim that the proposal has unanimous support amongst the clubs. Two chairmen had also made their doubts public earlier this week, Villa’s Randy Lerner and Wigan’s Dave Whelan.
Rafa said: “I don’t like it. To play another game in another country is not right for this competition. You must play here in England with the same opportunities for everyone. The seeding ideas is the reason I don’t like it. Everyone should have the same opportunities.”
The seeding idea came about because this unbalancing extra fixture ends the tradition of well over a hundred years of each team playing all the other teams in their division home and away once each. This new idea would see each team playing an extra game on neutral territory against a random other team from the league. Clearly there would be issues if Manchester United played Chelsea and Arsenal got Derby County, the former pair complaining that their league chances had been hit by the ‘easy’ draw Arsenal got. Likewise it’s hard enough trying to stop the conspiracy theories we already get from the likes of Neil Warnock without similar managers given the excuse that their relegation was all down to the team that stayed up playing a fellow relegation candidate whilst they played Liverpool. The idea of seeding was mentioned to try and allay those fears, but this also saw more complaints against what on the whole isn’t an idea that benefits the game in any way other than financially.
Rafa isn’t averse to change – just change for the sake of making money: “If you can change the league to improve it then that’s okay, but in this case it’s just about money. You can organise a tournament between the top four in Hong Kong if you wanted money. Maybe the people want to show the level of the Premier League and it might be positive in terms of finance, but if you play 38 games in your country, that’s enough. You don’t need to play games in other countries; otherwise you’d be playing all your life.”
And whether or not the current Liverpool owners would agree with Rafa, he says his CEO is also not keen: “I’ve spoken with Rick Parry about it and we think the idea is not the best.”
The scheme has also met with little interest from those countries that Scudamore felt would jump at the chance to host a game between Bolton and Wigan, and now has firm opposition from the top-man in the football world, the president of FIFA Sepp Blatter, who basically said ‘over my dead body’. He told the BBC: “This does not take into consideration the fans of the clubs and it gives the impression that they just want to go on tour to make some money. This will never happen, at least as long as I am the president of FIFA.”
He feels it’s important to stop the wealthy Premier League from stamping all over the game in the countries where the league teams are far less well-off: “The Premier League is richer than the others, they have more responsibility and what they are trying to do is contrary to this responsibility. This is something I cannot understand and definitely the FIFA executive committee will not sanction such an initiative.”
The Premier League tried to play these comments down, a spokesman saying that they’d not yet had the opportunity to speak to FIFA about the proposals, which they hope to do soon: “We look forward to the opportunity to meet with FIFA in order to discuss this matter in full, this was always the starting point in relation to the issue of sanction for the proposed international round, and as such we will be making no comment until after that time.”
The FA have kept a distance from the proposals so far, perhaps waiting to see what public reaction was first before deciding whether they could use the idea to their advantage. That may have changed now given another of Blatter’s comments, tea being splattered across the desks at Soho Square as Blatter revealed this plan could hurt the FA’s hopes of staging the 2018 World Cup in England.
Blatter said that the Premier League have a lot of obstacles to overcome before being allowed to stage these games, requiring permission from all involved: “Even if the FA did sanction it, all the national associations receiving these clubs would have to sanction it also. This will be very difficult. In addition to that, the FIFA executive committee will apply article two of the FIFA statutes: ‘to prevent all methods or practices which might jeopardise the integrity of matches or competitions or give rise to abuse of association football’. This is abuse. The rich Premier League is trying to get richer and wants to expand the importance of that league.”
What the BBC say happened behind the scenes is that the FA spoke informally with FIFA to see what the reaction would be, and as a result are about to release a statement to say they do not approve the idea. A formal application to FIFA for agreement to these plans would need to go through the FA, meaning the plans now look set to fail. No doubt the FA’s World Cup hopes were mentioned in these informal discussions, given that Blatter was quick to point out to the BBC that should these informal talks become a formal application that the stakes will be raised: “When it comes to a decision of the executive committee concerning this matter of the 39th round, and I am sure they will be against it, then it will not have a positive impact on the bid from England for the World Cup in 2018.”
Blatter sides with the vast majority of supporters of the league’s 20 teams who are against this plan: “I support the fans 100%. If I was a fan in England I would say: ‘no, please play at home and don’t go and exercise your talents abroad’. If the plan includes official league matches then, as a fan, I would protest against this.”
If FIFA do discuss the plans, it will be at their next executive committee meeting on 14th March.
Blatter comments follow UEFA President Michel Platini’s assertion that this was a “nonsense idea”.
One association that said it would welcome the plan was The United Arab Emirates FA. The vice-president and Prime Minister of UAE is Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, also the ruler of Dubai and familiar to Liverpool supporters because he is now believed to be getting involved personally in the bid by Dubai International Capital to buy Liverpool FC from Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The Sheikh received a special book from the UAE FA in thanks for his support of sport in the country, the book covering the major sports events in UAE for the past three years.
The moves by DIC to purchase Liverpool are said not to be quite as far advanced as implied in the Daily Mirror article yesterday, which suggested a deal would be done within a month. That said the talks are said to be ongoing and progressing. Meanwhile the Hicks camp still maintain their intention is to remain in charge of Liverpool for the long term with a view to making the club as profitable as its rivals and winning back the support of the fans through their actions. Gillett remains silent.
No doubt the game of poker between DIC’s people and the Hicks and Gillett people will continue until either DIC make an offer that the current owners are unable to turn down or until DIC decide that the current owners really do want more money for the club than DIC feel is viable. And like any game of poker, it’s impossible to predict the outcome without knowing exactly what each player’s hand is.