The three month long wait over the summer for the Premier League to begin sometimes felt excruciating. Weekend mornings were dulled and it became difficult to fill the empty space. And as much as I enjoyed a very entertaining final few games in the women’s World Cup, as well as the Copa America (despite the commentary being in a language I couldn’t understand), it just wasn’t the same. It was only on August 13 that everything felt right with the world. As the season began with as many plot lines as there are super stars now at Man City, it was once again put on hold for a few international qualifiers coupled with a handful of friendlies. Seriously, is this really necessary?
I love the World Cup and the Euros as much as the next crazed football fan, but I could certainly live a happy life never having to watch the national teams play otherwise. I used to enjoy international football, even friendlies, because it was exciting to see how each country was shaping up, and when Liverpool’s players were playing, it provided even more incentive for interest.
Now I really don’t care. Whenever one of these ridiculous international breaks come up, I pray to the football Gods that none of Liverpool’s players get injured (and perhaps a cheeky prayer that some of the opposition players do). All we ever seem to see after an international break is players limping off the field after the manager promised not to play them too long, accompanied by poor results in the league that following weekend.
I just can’t seem to wrap my head around the placement of these international breaks. Although due to unfortunate circumstances, many English players dodged a bullet not having to play a friendly THREE days before the Premier League began. Who on earth decided that was a good time to send these players away to play international friendlies? And I’d love to know the genius who decided that not only would it be great to have internationals a few days before the season kicks off, but again in three weeks time.
You see, momentum is a strange thing. Games can change in an instant and certain events occur in a split second that swing momentum in a positive direction. I think most Liverpool fans, as well as Manchester United, Manchester City, and even Wolves fans would agree that momentum was building for their clubs after the first three games of the season. To halt that momentum with a two week break where club managers have to entrust national team ones with the health of their best players is far from ideal.
I can’t even count how many times Benitez reluctantly handed over Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger to England and Denmark respectively, and was in turn handed back a broken midfielder and center back. It’s gotten to the point that managers have started to beg and plead with their players not to play in these games unless it is absolutely crucial.
And friendlies? Give me a break (no pun intended). Friendlies need to be played with younger or second string international players, or at least with the first choice players not playing the full ninety minutes.
And more to the point, who exactly is watching these international games? Unless it’s a major tournament, who really cares how well San Marino play against Uzbekistan in a friendly?
That’s not to say there aren’t big national team followings, and there are a lot of football fans who only follow international games. I am in no way discrediting their passion or nationalistic pride.
But at the end of the day, these players are not paid by England, or Argentina, or Denmark. They are paid by and extremely important to their club teams and it has become a shambles how distraught the relationship between club and country has become. Club managers no longer have any faith in the respective national team setups and are constantly forced to make changes when players come back injured.
I have two suggestions to rectify the pestilence that is the international break.
Number One: Qualifying for major tournaments happens over ONE period of a few weeks each season. Qualifying becomes almost a mini-tournament in itself and teams are seeded to allow the teams to play as few games as possible.
Number Two: The qualifying games are to be played during the summer, or during a winter break. Now it’s true that at this moment in time, England does not have a winter break, but perhaps they should. This would give players a much needed rest during the year, and give the opportunity for international games to be played without disrupting the leagues when the season is in full swing. Players and managers in the UK have long advocated for a winter break as it seems pretty successful in other European leagues.
Even if both suggestions were combined and some qualifiers were played during the summer, and the other ones played during the winter, it would help the leagues, help the players, and perhaps even attract more fans to the international games.
I think more than anything that club fans have started to despise these breaks because they come at such awkward times in the year. Maybe the love for international football would return if it wasn’t thrust upon fans at the worst possible times in the football calendar.
And even more to the point, what do fans and players alike value more, international level football or the Champions League? The Champions League has become such a massive tournament every year that many value its importance and difficulty to win as the holy grail as opposed to winning the World Cup. Playing in the Champions League has become the pinnacle for footballers as so many made abundantly clear upon their transfers in the last couple of years. If you’re not in the Champions League, you don’t have a hope in hell of signing top class players. Liverpool have certainly had to learn this lesson the hard way.
Even so, a lot of players still take a lot of pride in playing for their national team, and that’s great to see. Spaniards, Uruguayans, Brazilians, and the Dutch all take enormous pride playing for their national team, whereas English players see it as more of a hinderance. This is evident in how these countries perform on the world stage and the attitude the players bring to the team.
So what is the solution? For better or worse, international football is one side of the game as a whole and the club vs. country row will continue forever. The only way forward is for FIFA and each country’s domestic league to come up with a better system in which to balance both sides of the footballing coin. And no matter what they come up with, it has to be better than what there is now.