Saturday 7 December 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Platini fighting pointless battle

UEFA chief's angry stance on retirements could damage international game

Under Michael Platini's proposals, players such as Stoke City's Stephen Ireland (pictured) who do not make themselves available for international football would get club suspensions
Under Michael Platini's proposals, players such as Stoke City's Stephen Ireland (pictured) who do not make themselves available for international football would get club suspensions
UEFA President Michel Platini
7 September 2014; Aiden McGeady, Republic of Ireland, celebrate's after scoring his side's second and winning goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer, Group D, Georgia v Republic of Ireland. Boris Paichadze National Arena, Tbilisi, Georgia. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THIS week's column opens with the confession that it contains a brief reference to Stephen Ireland's international situation. Sorry.

The bald one did spring to mind last week when it emerged that Michel Platini was threatening his fellow Frenchman Franck Ribery with a club suspension after he retired from international football.

"Franck cannot decide himself whether he plays for France," said Platini (below), pointing to FIFA rules on international call-ups which are generally overlooked by gentleman's agreement when a player calls time on his contribution.

"If Didier Deschamps picks him, he must come," continued the UEFA president who, remarkably, spoke as if he was ready to go to war with Bayern Munich over this issue.

Seven years after Ireland's departure from the Irish scene, it would give the FAI a recent precedent for raising the stakes if they cared. Happily, the anniversary passed without a single question on his status being aimed towards Martin O'Neill, so maybe it's over.

In the bigger picture, however, debates built around footballers' seemingly casual attitude when it comes to national service invariably lead to doomsday predictions.

Expanded

A variety of Platini-driven plans, such as the expanded 24-team-Euros, the new Nations League and the continent-wide Euro 2020 have been described as attempts to 'revive' the international game.

This latest outburst smacks of unnecessary meddling, especially coming off the back of a summer which was lit up by a brilliant World Cup filled with scenes which showcased all that is good about representing your country.

It served as a reminder that, essentially, the simple pleasures are the best thing about the international game. The important parts don't really need too much fixing.

Ribery was unfortunate to miss that competition through injury, a renewal which made you feel desperately sorry for those individuals who sat it out either through bad luck, personality clashes or their own volition.

The extent to which Lionel Messi appeared to build his campaign around peaking in the summer illustrated that the elite players remain energised by success on the greatest stage. From that high, a hangover peppered by decisions to concentrate on club business is inevitable. There's a pragmatic aspect to the course of action followed by Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and other stars who have chosen to step away.

Once they have reached a point where, in their eyes, there is nothing more left to achieve in that arena then it is better that they step aside for others to take the mantle.

This brings us to the crux of matter when it comes to the club v country discussion. Focusing on the minority of players who step away early, like Platini has with regard to Ribery, only succeeds in accentuating the negative.

A sure-fire way to cheapen international football is to labour on those with ambiguous opinions towards it. Admittedly the expansion of the Euros could increase boredom levels for the major nations, who will qualify easily. For others in the middle rank, that have fresh hope, it could have a galvanising impact and that's why there is actually some logic to the plan.

Watching Wales scrape to victory over Andorra, it was apparent how much it meant to Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, even if his employers won't have enjoyed the minnows' attempts to kick him around their dodgy artificial pitch.

The bottom line, though, is that regardless of how they get there, the players of the 24 teams who make it to France will be geared up for one of the highlights of their football lives. If some have chosen to skip it, then it's their loss.

Poor major tournaments, hindered by the questionable choice of hosts, have really damaged the profile of the international sphere relative to the consistency of the Champions League. But the quality of Brazil reminded the public of good it can be when they get the basics right. That's what Platini and Co should concentrate on.

The new Nations League concept, which will largely replace friendlies from 2018, is good news for associations who have to generate extra ticket revenue and TV money in the slow years.

Alas, it is unlikely to have any impact on the attitude of players and may further strain their employers' patience. No kid is going to grow up dreaming of winning a Nations League medal.

The main selling point of international football will always be the traditional prizes, the glorious summers which can run smoothly in tandem with club ambitions.

Encouraging conflict between the strands is a risky business that can only breed resentment. As a voter for Qatar 2022, Platini should know that already.

Evidence of one game not enough to draw Georgia conclusion

As the dust settles on the first meaningful outing of the Martin O'Neill era, it is amazing how one match is used to draw definitive conclusions.

In particular, the new-found expertise on Georgian football has stood out in the post-game analysis.

A basic study of Georgia's home results in recent years would suggest they will take points from teams in Tbilisi. However, on the strength of their admittedly disappointing showing against Ireland, the verdict has been reached that Poland and Scotland will both have no difficulty there.

A Scottish colleague, who watched his team lose against the Georgians in 2007, certainly does not feel that way despite believing that Gordon Strachan's side will finish runners-up in the group.

When Ireland won in Armenia in 2010, there was a feeling that points had been gained on the field, although the extent to which the locals improved afterwards was dramatic.

Kazakhstan were poor two years ago, but Austria still managed to fire blanks on their visit to Astana.

So it would be no surprise whatsoever if a Georgian side which focuses on being hard to beat manages to frustrate one of Ireland's rivals.

Their star man last Sunday, Tornike Ovriashvili, is just 22. Jano Ananidze, their great white hope, turns the same age next month. The core of their team is young enough to improve over the next two years and pose difficulty.

So while it is true that the Irish performance will have to step up a gear, it is a leap to conclude they passed a simple test last Sunday.

A 90-minute judgment of an unknown opponent always seems to presume that we have seen the best of them. They can have off-days too.

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