Friday, September 30, 2022

When two become one

Football is governed with currency at the forefront of its conscience. Everybody knows this. There is no pretence. Even those that run the game speak nakedly of “expanding global markets.” The Football Association responded to universal criticism over their decision to move the Cup Final to a 5.15pm kickoff with a statement that verged on self parody.

The “F.A. Cup with Budweiser Final” was moved with the agreement of “major stakeholders and broadcasters.” The F.A. kindly suggested that National Express (coincidentally, a commercial partner of the F.A.) would be running coaches to Wembley, so what were you whinging about anyway? Take your flat cap and your rattle and shove it up your arse, son. We can’t even be bothered to pretend that we don’t consider you all as juicy, succulent wallets to slake our thirst for bank notes.

None of this is news. We have all known this for a while. But as we exit another international break, one does have to ask where exactly international football sits in this great pantheon of avarice? Globalisation, both corporate and social (if indeed, those twin concepts can be abstracted in this scenario) has reduced interest in the international game as a spectacle for many. Through the Champions League and online streaming, we can see the world’s best from continental leagues as regularly as we like.

Many of us invest a lot of money and a lot of time in following our teams, so our chief interest in the international game has been reduced to a vain hope that our new £42m signing doesn’t go off with a sore knee in a friendly. International football is eating itself in a sense too. Whilst it’s true that the introduction of group stages and the expansion of European competition has given more club sides a busy calendar, the amount of club games played has stayed relatively stable for the last 40 years or so.

Arsenal’s 1970-71 Double Team played 64 games. The Double team of 2001-02 played 60. International friendlies are increasingly swelling the calendar. Lukas Podolski and Sergio Ramos reached 100 caps for their country aged 27. Reaching 100 caps was once considered a rare achievement for an entire career. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the USSR has also given us more countries, which obviously leads to more games.

However, I don’t believe international football has no place in the modern game. It’s easy, as plump, Premier League reared Arsenal fans, to look at this parochially, particularly those of us that are English. I used to think international football was an inconvenience and an outdated one at that. That was of course, until I went to Brazil for the first time (as chronicled last year) and saw how Seleção is viewed.

In Brazil the international side takes primacy over club football, Brasileirão doesn’t even break for internationals, clubs lose any players called up for Brazil matches and it’s largely accepted. It’s not just Brazil though. Think of a nation like the Ivory Coast who don’t have anything approaching a strong domestic league. Yet they’ve produced players such as the Toure brothers and Didier Drogba. Belgium have built an international side the envy of much of Europe but barely any of its starting line up play in the Belgian league. At the risk of sounding patronising, fans from countries that have birthed and developed these players deserve to see them. The respective F.A.’s deserve to parade them too, as a source of national pride.

Clubs still tolerate giving up their players for international games, even they do so grudgingly, because a) they have a legislative obligation to do so but b) because it’s still considered the right thing to do. International football, conceptually, is supposed to uphold the more Corinthian aspects of the game. It is meant to be untouched by oligarchs and untainted by investment. It’s a sporting competition in the purest sense. I think that’s to be upheld.

The problem is that FIFA is cradling something of an identity crisis. Some rather innocuous comments from Jack Wilshere last week sparked a debate as to what actually makes a player eligible to play for a country. This piece by @kenearlys shows you just what a complex, nuanced debate that actually is. There are no easy answers, but I think FIFA are coming to a crossroads where decisions have to be made.

Currently, we have the rather unique situation of Diego Costa, eligible for both Brazil and Spain. Because neither has a competitive game now before the World Cup, he doesn’t have to choose which of the two, who are both openly courting him, he represents until May. Uniquely, both countries are amongst the favourites and both are in desperate need of a central striker. He can effectively behave like a club player chasing a big money transfer until the summer.

International football needs to be distinct from club football, otherwise its attraction evaporates. The other issue is that it too is becoming an increasingly commercialised pursuit. There is no better symbol for the crossroads international football has reached than FIFA itself. Officially a charity, that behaves as a nefarious corporation. International football has been tangled up with revenue creation for some time now. But I think we’re coming to a tipping point.

Looking again at Brazil’s Seleção, the CBF has used Brazil’s lack of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup to take the team on a money spinning friendly roadshow. They’ve played in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Boston and Paris since 2012. This week they played South Korea and Zambia in China. As @binhaf pointed out on Twitter, on Tuesday, Brazil played an African team managed by a Frenchman in China. Scolari rested almost all of his first choice XI for the less taxing engagement with Zambia.

Everybody except Neymar of course. As well as being Brazil’s boy wonder with a football, Neymar is one of the most marketed players on the planet. Billboards bearing his face in Brazil are like rats in London. You’re never more than 50 yards away from one. Despite carrying a slight ankle knock and suffering from jetlag, Neymar was wheeled out against Zambia. The Chinese didn’t pay the CBF lots of money for a friendly to see Hulk starting upfront. Neymar is the ten pound note in the CBF’s thong.

This was fine when he was at Santos because they were in the thrall of the CBF and rather knew their place as a junior concern to Seleção. Now he’s Barcelona’s £50m investment. One can’t imagine that Barcelona will be too enamoured with their big money signing and fresh marketable face tiring his limbs in Beijing for 168 minutes worth of international friendly over four days. Barca is one of the biggest and therefore noisiest (and most pious) clubs on earth. They are unlikely to bow to the CBF’s supremacy quite as readily. These are rich boys fighting over expensive toys.

International football is in danger of going toe to toe with club football in the commercial arena. It’s a sordid battle you suspect it can’t win, as Iain Macintosh concludes in this brilliant piece. Interest in club football is far greater and clubs pay the players, which is the bottom line. I’m not holding club football up as an arbiter of moral supremacy here, because its hands aren’t clean enough to accuse the international federations of greed.

However, club football has already cornered that market. It has the army of public interest at its back and the wind of investment beneath its wings. International football’s trump card is that it’s somehow separate from this relentless ornamentation. The qualification issue is a thorny one but one that needs addressing with clarity I think. There is still a place for international football, but it strikes me that it needs to decide what it is and what it wants, or else it risks dissolution. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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