The European clubs, under association president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, have won a key tactical battle that significantly strengthens their hand in their ongoing fight with FIFA. With the existing agreement between UEFA and ECA due to expire in two years, there was some urgency in reaching a compromise. When you consider that parts of the new agreement will now kick in this summer and run for six years, the gains made by ECA are even more impressive.
The announcement took many by surprise given that only a couple of months ago Rummenigge aired his frustration during an end of year interview with World Soccer, saying he was "not especially optimistic about reaching an acceptable agreement." Rummenigge and the ECA membership were unambiguous on what they wanted: A reduction in the international calendar was clearly number one, then broader insurance coverage for players on international duty as well as improved compensation for teams when players were called up to represent their countries.
The tactics of the European Club Association were hardly subtle, and in the end it looks as if they have had a willing accomplice: UEFA president Michel Platini. By reaching an agreement on all three ECA objectives, both sides have placed FIFA (and in particular, president Sepp Blatter) in a very tricky and awkward position.
The international calendar falls under the purview of the global governing body rather than the regional organizations (like UEFA). The ECA/UEFA agreement means a reduction of between eight-to-10 games in a four-year cycle (including the deletion of the almost universally detested August international date) but it will still require FIFA endorsement.
For FIFA, going along with the change is tantamount to admitting that its power has been usurped. If they dig in their heels and attempt to play hardball, they will be forced to fight on two fronts: On one side, the big clubs of Europe; on the other, the world’s wealthiest confederation.
The agreement clearly shows UEFA president Michel Platini is not willing to risk damaging the cash cows of UEFA Champions League and European Championships to stay inline with Blatter, who is now looking more exceptionally lame duck rather than golden goose. A statement from FIFA was issued a shortly after the ECA/UEFA press release and was uncharacteristically reserved in tone.
The ECA was formed in 2008 as a successor to a number of more ad-hoc organizations that set out to represent and lobby for the best interests of the larger European clubs. The organization now has representation from every affiliated member of UEFA and numbers over 200 clubs. While some will point fingers at them and accuse the ECA of operating simply from a position of self-interest, the explosion of international games over the last number of decades has clearly increased mental and physical pressure on players.
Ironically for Rummenigge, one country that experienced a big increase in international matches is Germany. From the `80s to the naughties, the size of Germany’s fixture list increased by 27 percent. That still doesn’t come close to the increase in international matches played by the USA. Throughout the `60s, the US played just 24 games. Four decades later, the number had reached over 170.
A comparison of international schedules over the last few decades also shows a marked change in the pattern of games. Years ago, a number of international games consisted of more "leisurely" summer tours – more games in the summer and a less fractured international schedule during what would be considered the regular season. Tuesday’s agreement may push us back in that direction.