In 2016, international football occupies a curious space within the sport. Once considered the pinnacle of the game, club football has spread its tentacles and expanded aggressively, enlarging itself in everybody’s consciousness. The narrative thread provided by round the clock coverage of the Premier League and the Champions League are so consuming that internationals have struggled for supremacy in England.
The concepts of nationhood and patriotism have become far more malleable in the modern era. Not least in Europe, where borders have relaxed and the continent becomes increasingly homogenous. Players demonstrate the complexity of these concepts, often qualified to play for more than one country. Phil Wall neatly sums up some of the reasons that committed fans of Premier League clubs find it difficult to invest in the English national team.
I think the main reason is just that the Premier League, itself a global affair, a league of nations if you will, and the Champions League more than fortify many of us. We just don’t have the time or the space to make room for international football during the domestic season. It’s a bit like being offered another dessert after devouring a Victoria sponge. You might feel duty-bound to accept it out of politeness to granny, but in truth, you just end up pushing this unwanted course around your plate with a fork.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how there is scarcely room for the aperitif of cup football in the bulging belly of the English football fan nowadays. However, international tournaments continue to fire the popular imagination in Europe. The instant that Euro 2016 kicked off, club football became cryogenically frozen in the collective mind-set. Even transfer rumours, an entertainment industry that threatens to dwarf the popularity of the sport itself, have hushed to a dull background hum.
International football and international tournaments can be considered as two separate entities. An international tournament has several ingredients that the overall calendar lacks. For a start, it operates in a vacuum with the club season in suspended animation. Friendlies and qualifiers, as well as lacking the meaning and intensity of tournament matches, are infrequent. This makes it difficult to emotionally invest in them and, just as crucially in this day and age, the timeline is too sporadic for the media to spin out any soap operas.
More seasoned fans of international football, understandably, bristle against the fickle affections of supporters towards their national side. Fans that would favour an episode of the Barchester Chronicles over an England friendly can be seen crying into their St. George’s flags as England succumb to another penalty shootout defeat. I would argue that international tournaments actively encourage this kind of ‘glory hunting.’ They enable prolonged focus on the fortunes of the national side and, more simply, they happen when there’s nothing else going on.
In a sense, international tournaments are a little like Christmas. You’re not as engrossed in it all as you were when you were younger. But time stands still over the festive period, as office hours begin to wind down. Everyone and everything around you demands your interest, so you happily fasten yourself to the sofa, reach for the booze cabinet and gorge yourself to saturation point.
Before you know it, you find yourself racing home from work to catch the second half of Romania v Switzerland- a match you wouldn’t watch if it took place in your back garden at any other time of the year. In that sense, the whole jamboree becomes the loose equivalent of Christmas television. Ordinarily, I would rather wipe my arse with sandpaper than watch Eastenders. Yet on Christmas evening, there I am on the sofa, watching the unthinkable misery unfold between sips of Glenfiddich.
I think 10-15 years ago I became outright hostile to international football. Once the optimism of Euro 96 had vanished and been exposed as a mirage in the England fan’s dessert and once Arsenal’s squad contained a cast of international players, I began to resent it. I was (and still am) totally absorbed by my club. National team games were simply an exercise in exhausting and injuring the players that supervised Arsenal’s prospects.
Friendlies had begun to pepper the calendar and expand an already bloated fixture list. The amount of conceivable games a club can play has stayed relatively stable over the years. Multiple domestic cup replays are no longer possible, though this adjustment has been made to accommodate the expansion of European club competition. No modern Arsenal side can match the demands placed on the 1979-80 squad, who played a total of 70 fixtures. FIFA has sought to cram more international friendlies into the programme to keep the coffers swollen.
However, my stance softened considerably when I began to take an interest in CONMEBOL football, specifically covering the Brazilian national side. South American fans are resigned to haemorrhaging their best players to Europe (and now, China too). International matches give those supporters the opportunity to watch and celebrate the talents that they have produced at close quarters, which is only right really. Consider the Ivory Coast too for example, a country that has produced an array of talented players, most of whom have never so much as kicked a ball in the Ivorian Ligue 1.
The reasons that the Brazilian public have fallen out of love with their national side are multi-faceted (the CBF is overtly corrupt and outdated, the team is crap now, etc). But much of the disenfranchisement is rooted in the decision to take Brazil friendlies around the world from 2012-2014. Having already qualified for the 2014 World Cup as hosts, Nike and Gillette sponsored a global roadshow of exhibition matches to far flung territories such as Japan, Boston and even London. It fostered a distance between the team and its fans, as Brazil behaved more like a club team and the CBF paraded them as a global brand.
There is an important lesson therein. Though the federations that oil the wheels of international football- FIFA, UEFA, various national FAs- are every bit as malodorous as those that handle the club game, on the pitch there is a purity to international football. The players are tied to their teams for life, nations cannot simply buy better players. The success of a national side depends on the quality of its raw materials. Its production of young talent, its coaching, its organisation. It is the last vestige of vaguely amateur principle that remains at the top level of the sport.
In a condensed time period during an otherwise barren summer, international tournaments create a narrative thread and reacquaint us with a love of knockout cup football. For the club obsessive, it gives some of us an insight into casual fandom. Watching matches with genuine interest, but without the gut shredding anxiety you feel every time Arsenal concede a corner. Defeat hurts momentarily, but it does not ruin your entire weekend in the same way.
As fans, we often fail to consider the feelings of the players themselves. Whilst you are left with the impression that many players also feel qualifiers and friendlies to be a bit of a chore, it is clear to see what competing on this stage means to them. I am certain Alexis Sanchez prizes Panenka-ing his country to its first ever major trophy in Santiago last summer above his cup final strike against Aston Villa 6 weeks earlier.
There has to be a place for international football in the sport, albeit with more altruistic governance. (Club football offers few lessons in that regard). Even if international football itself seems to have diminished in the game’s psyche, the tournaments have never been more popular. No matter how personal preferences, behaviours and belief systems alter in the general English populace, Christmas has always been king and it probably always will be.
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