It has become a truism that international breaks are dull, and there are far too many of them. That FIFA bigwigs, holed up in their Zürich glass box, deigned yet another one take place this November – the third of the current season – is testament to the battle raging in football between the club and international formats of the game. Any international football, even the most pointless, underscores FIFA’s importance in the body’s collective mind.
And so while Euro 2012 Play Offs take place this week, the Football Association has arranged two utterly meaningless friendlies at Wembley. Manufactured arguments between the FA and FIFA about symbolic Poppies aside, Fabio Capello will gain little from England’s thrashing by Spain on Saturday, or the bore draw with Sweden in the coming week. Capello’s side is little better than average, a fact no friendly double-header is likely to alter. Meanwhile, there’s a large bill to pay on Wembley’s development, and the bumper crowd ensured by World Champions’ visit has the FA’s bean counters grinning all the way to their stadium office.
FA board member David Gill presumably approves. Indeed, international week is also the time Gill predictably tunes into MUTV to update the masses with the latest from camp Glazer. This week Gill pledged that whomever follows Sir Alex Ferguson into the Old Trafford hotseat must adhere to a club policy of investing in youth. The chief executive didn’t state that Fergie’s successor must understand the phrase “there’s no value in the market,” but he wasn’t far short. Like England’s prestige friendly with Spain, it’s all about heritage and tradition, you see.
“We are a great club whose values go back in history to our heritage to the ’50s and ’60s and the last 25 years with Alex,” Gill told MUTV, forgetting the 70 years of history before Sir Matt Busby took charge of the club in 1948.
“To continue with that, the new manager needs to understand those values and the vision for the club and must buy into that. The important point to make is the new manager, whenever that may be and whomever that may be, will be taking over a great, great club, in a great, great sport and Alex, in particular, will want to make sure he inherits a great squad. That’s our goal – to make sure when the new manager comes in he does have a great squad to work with in terms of age and profile.
“Alex’s legacy to United is to my mind very clear – delivering an unprecedented period of success in the Manchester United way. By that, I mean attractive football using young players – both homegrown and buying players when necessary like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, but actually developing our own players. That record is there for everyone to see and that legacy is very clear also.”
In that Gill presumably means a commitment to the current policy of acquiring only younger, cheaper, players in the transfer market, while eschewing fees spent on those over 26. It is a policy that, guided by Ferguson’s genius, has allowed the Glazer family to taste success despite largely starving the club of transfer funds. The ‘Ronaldo money is available’ you see, but the market is ‘so over-heated that only young players will do.’ In any case ‘United’s tradition is to focus on youth’, forgetting the six occasions on which the club has broken the British transfer record during Ferguson’s early reign.
Whitewashing of history aside, Ferguson’s successor will bring no similar guarantee of success with the same policy. After all, the Scot has squeezed more out of his relatively limited squad over the past five years than any mere mortal could expect to. It is a period in which Ferguson’s true worth has genuinely shone through. Without the deluge of talent the class of 1992 brought, or the relative wealth of the early 2000s, Ferguson has still delivered a succession of major trophies. In this week that club, supporters and manager have been celebrating Ferguson’s 25 years in charge at Old Trafford, this is worth noting.
“I believe in young people,” Ferguson told his favourite media outlet Sirius XM this week. “You need a foundation at a football club and that is vital. You can build a first team, but you really do need the back-up and the foundation to make it a football club.
“With all the young players that come to us in their formative years, you have got a job to make them good footballers but also to show them how to grow up the right way. Cristiano came to us at 18, just a young lad from Portugal who didn’t know the country. But he learned the language, adapted very well and he has turned out fantastically as a human being, just as was the case with the Nevilles, Scholes, Beckhams, Giggs and all those lads.”
Ferguson’s selflessness in building a squad for the future is relevant, although there is, of course, strong evidence that the Scot has little choice. With money released this summer largely down to retiring stars removing themselves from the wage bill, Ferguson’s successor may well begin life with a serious financial handicap.
Indeed, of the leading candidates to replace Ferguson none – save perhaps for Pep Guardiola – has a history of building teams based on home-grown talent. In that the Spaniard has benefited hugely from Barcelona’s very long-term policy of investing in La Masia, together with some very deep pockets for expensive acquisitions. Meanwhile, José Mourinho has largely built a youthful-looking Real Madrid team in the transfer market, while Laurent Blanc, David Moyes, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have no such heritage at all.
It all adds up, says Gill, to a “difficult” choice in replacing Ferguson, when the Scot retires at some point over the next three years. It probably doesn’t require a FIFA-sized committee to work that one out.