Futile friendlies in need of a rethink

It was the sight of stars as worthy of protection as Fernando Torres, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta trudging vacuously up and down the pitch during a meaningless friendly in Puerto Rico, just three days before they are required to put their bodies on the line in wholehearted contests in Europe, that made me wonder whether the Spanish national board really had its players’ best interests at heart. As happy as they are to help this golden generation win sporting glory for Spain, it is clear that they are almost as keen to exploit their talent whenever there is a suitable cash reward to be had. Playing in Puerto Rico reportedly earned the Spanish board three million Euros, with a portion of the rest of the money the friendly generated presumably going to FIFA.

The only way in which such bloated and callously scheduled international friendlies (coming as they do on the heels of two recently concluded major international tournaments) can be justified is if the money generated is entirely put towards assisting the smaller, host country’s football development. The one mitigating quality of the meaningless exercise that was carried out in Puerto Rico on Wednesday was witnessing the unabashed joy and enthusiasm that scoring against the world and European champions brought the Puerto Rican fans. This potential cannot be harnessed to good effect by a friendly from which almost all the money disappears into the pockets of the Spanish board, but might have longer-term benefits if the funds are instead used to build the footballing infrastructure Puerto Rico needs to take advantage of the popularity of the game throughout the country. All it takes is one footballing icon to emerge from Puerto Rico for a multitude of generations to be inspired to improve their lot through his example, and it would give international exhibition matches a reason to exist beyond fattening the wallets of the undeserved. It is also a cause that footballers like Andres Iniesta, who currently has valid reason to criticise the madness of flying halfway around the world to play in an aimless fixture, would fully identify with and get behind (all the more so if a more thoughtful date can be found to fit such matches in the international calendar).

In the interim, the players’ unions should demand that national boards and FIFA account for every dime that is earned from their stars plowing through these matches, so that we can rest assured that the money is being put to causes similar to the one described above rather than going directly into top officials’ bank accounts. It is an infuriating characteristic of FIFA and some associated national boards, that their role as governors of the world’s most populous game does not give them a sense of responsibility to explain every action that football’s stakeholders are unhappy about. After their recent shenanigans in awarding World Cups in suspicious circumstances whilst displaying a seemingly pervasive atmosphere of corruption – as well as the dubiousness of some high-ranking Spanish officials’ past activies (e.g Sandro Rosell’s business relationship with Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and FIFA) – it is the least that they can be expected to do.

Fabregas’s stature diminished by switch to Barca

Cesc Fabregas has revealed that new boss Tito Vilanova wants him to make slight adjustments to how he played the role Barcelona assigned for him last season. Instead of being so “static on the inside left”, he is instructed to “be more mobile…and look for space, help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.” To anyone who saw him scale rare peaks during season upon season of increasing excellence at Arsenal, the mere suggestion that Barcelona have prescribed a role for Cesc that circumscribes and modifies his talent to the base requirements of the team is scandalous. A player of his potential should not be running around like a makeshift winger in a team whose pretentious attempts to make midfielders play like forwards contributed to their own downfall last season. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Cesc being denied the chance to fill the prime years of his career in the position that he was born to play: playmaker, dictating everything that happens on the pitch and treating lovers of the game all over to a demonstration of rare artistic talent and footballing intelligence.

However, it is fast becoming apparent that the freedom he enjoyed at Arsenal that was behind his rise as a footballer of rare genius will not be afforded him at Barca. Xavi and Iniesta’s occupation of the most privileged berths football has to offer is warranted, but Cesc’s love of Barca may well blind him to the point at which they begin selling him short and stalling his career through rigid tactical game plans and the evergreen presence of Xavi. The level of acclaim he commanded among the entire footballing fraternity has already diminished since he left Arsenal – not because he is among finer company but because his unmatched footballing intelligence is being circumscribed and starved of the chance to shine in his misplaced role at Barca. It is sad to see him being relegated to just another name amid players with greater technique but lesser vision in discussions of the best midfielders in the world today. It is a reversal of the path of thrilling ascent that Arsene Wenger set him on at Arsenal, and may well ensure that the second act of his career is not quite as luminous individually as the first was. One would not go as far to say that his accelerated return to Barcelona was a misguided decision, but Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the challenge of leading Arsenal to glory would have had far greater value for Cesc than being just another champion at Barcelona will echo around for him for as long as he takes to find terra firma at his boyhood club.