Reviving the internationals


In a pre-World Cup game in 2014, England played Peru, a tactic from Roy Hodgson to prepare for high intensity South American football. However, the highlight from that devastatingly boring game was when Peruvian defender Riojas was hit by a paper airplane in the second half. The featured image, a woefully low quality picture, is my own, from when I attended this fixture. The match only pre-emptied the disappointment of England’s 2014 World Cup run, for the excitement of the match itself was hysterically replaced by the circus-like reactions to this incident. More than anything, it reflected upon the general indifference towards international friendlies and international breaks (with exemption to international tournaments like the Euros or the World Cup). They were boring then, and continue to be so today.

Perhaps the most untimely international break of the 21st century occurred last week. Seasons in Spain, England and France beginning in the week of the 12th September, and 1 week of this year’s “mini pre-season” has been taken away due to the European fixtures in the Nations League. In this crucial time of preparation, a period which surely determines how seasons pan out, clubs have had to adapt schedules and training plans according to international teams’ schedules. Frank Lampard made a slight argument against the break, saying that ‘this international break is not a positive for us at all, most clubs will tell you that, it is very difficult to try to put our team together to work on the things we need to. ‘ Mikel Arteta said he ‘didn’t know’ how his team could maintain momentum going into the season, after having won the Community Shield against Liverpool. The same problems exist for the November or March breaks, where teams on winning runs have them broken down due to these breaks. In other words, by playing around with repetition, we could say that the “breaks” break football.

The Blizzard raises another problem with the current build of international football in Issue 11. The article, titled ‘Why Is The World Cup So Boring?’, was written before the relatively exciting 2014 and 2018 World Cups, but still remains pertinent to the wider discussion of international football. One of the reasons Jonathan Wilson gives is that nations are unable to execute patterns of play leading to goals, like clubs do so obliviously. As a result, World Cups, such as 2010, had fewer goals scored per game. Nations are not spending enough consistent time training and working together.

The ongoing pandemic only furthers the untimeliness of last week’s break. For example, Iceland are on UK’s quarantine list and yet England players were allowed to travel there and play football, as they were exempt from the government guidelines. This surely raises questions on the ethics of footballers being exempt from quarantine rules, with thousands of people not able to visit families in other countries due to the ongoing rules. England’s poor performances against Iceland and Denmark, coupled with the Greenwood-Foden-girls-in-room scandal, potentially weakens any justifications for England’s decision to take part in the fixtures.

It was an international break to forget. Another break will happen once more in November, and again clubs will have to adjust to players leaving, and again will international football likely disappoint. The mood over international breaks is quite clear from a fans’ point of view. Media accounts such as Sports Bible and others often contrast the excitement of the Premier League returning with the underwhelming feel of international breaks. Although watching England play will always be a main priority for football-watchers, the international breaks rarely produce any sort of drama or enthusiasm. Last week’s international break seems to epitomise the general football community’s discord with mid-season (or mid-pre-season) international breaks.

Playing for your country remains a huge honour for the majority of footballers. In a press conference before England’s game against Iceland, Connor Coady reminded us all that the dream of playing for England still exists. The call-up by Gareth Southgate was a phone he will ‘never forget’. Undeniably, Coady’s message clarifies that international football continues to be of huge importance for players. The opportunity to compete at an international stage and represent your country is a privilege. That is the basis from which the football authorities must totally rebrand and re-schedule international football.
All parties must benefit from international breaks- fans, clubs, nations, players, managers, etc. The current mould of international football is harming the game.

What are the solutions? The Nations League, as recently created, is just one of many. Moreover, FIFA’s plans for an international Nations League should be welcomed, as it adds more competitiveness, engaging supporters around the world in a different way. Friendly matches have ceased to produce an adequate level of entertainment in the past decade at least. From an English point of view, one of the most memorable friendly victory includes England’s victory over the great Brazil in 1984. That was now over 3 decades ago. There are few other international friendlies since 1984 that come to mind; England’s 3-2 away win over Germany in 2016 could be cited. Either way, nothing strikes too remarkably.

However, the introduction of the UEFA Nations League, or an international version of the Nations League, is not sufficient to ameliorate the state of international football. It is quite clear to all football spectators that calendar issues are the primary cause of the ennui that comes with international football; the interruption of league football every few months will rarely be greeted with open arms by any individual. Everyone has an opinion on how it can be moulded to suit fans, organisations and professionals. Here is just one more view on how the calendar could change so that international football becomes exciting once again:

Merge the international breaks into one. As a word of caution, I am not an expert on calendars. Everything I put forward in my argument comes from a fairly naïve perspective of a fan. Yet, surely the combined 3-4 weeks of stoppage could be put together in a single month, say November (before English Christmas periods or European winter breaks), or February (could suit South American leagues in this case, as well as African and European leagues). This would eliminate issues with consistency in international teams, as managers will have time to present and instil tactical methods into players. Fans would also be able to look forward to a singular internationals period, rather than running to and fro between club-level and international-level football at sporadic moments in a football season. In the space of a year, there would be only 2 long international breaks (mid-season and summer breaks) rather than lots of short, randomly-timed ones. Is this an inconceivable possibility? Any further logistical explanations or details into this idea would be rather futile to write about, but I am keen to hear what your opinions are on the matter through social media or in the comments section.

Nevertheless, it is governing bodies, such as FIFA and UEFA, that must take robust action to revive international football. It is frivolous for fans, journalists or professionals to discuss the matter until necessary action is taken. Intervention is needed from these organisations, which are not always reliable organisations by the way. However, as dominant forces controlling rules and football’s biggest tournaments, the football governing bodies could surely take the initiative and resurrect international football. Internationals are, for now, a hugely important component of football, but it seems that soon it could not be, should it takes the path it is currently heading in. It is not just in England where international football breaks struggle to excite spectators. In other countries like Brazil, leagues continue regardless of whether there are international games being played or not. With plans for a re-designed Club World Cup and rising money prizes for club competitions, it is a critical time for the future of international football.

Image credit: my own!