It’s that time of the season again – the international break and all around us there are sighs of disinterest …
A fellow scribe here at The Armchair Pundits, James Rabey, wrote recently on the dire need to change international football; indeed the press is awash with disinterest and boredom at the prospect of the internationals with the popular Guardian podcast, Football Weekly, and The Times’ equivalent, The Game, both culprits.
However, I intent to convince you that the internationals are full of joyous entertainment and drama, the problem, is that such entertainment rarely lies with our home nations.
I’m not going to try and convince you that England are a joy to watch – they really aren’t. Look beyond the home nations and even beyond Europe, though, and there is fantastic entertainment to be had if you just show some positive enthusiasm.
But why are we all so seemingly disinterested? This is something James discussed, and I implore you to read his article. Maybe it’s something to do with boring friendlies, slowed down by endless subs where caps are thrown around like confetti; perhaps it’s more to do with frivolous games against the likes of San Marino or Andorra. There are certainly some issues, and I shall address them later, but for now I implore you to look further into the international fixture list and I can assure you, you’ll be entertained.
Why internationals are fantastic
I relish the international break; I love the chance to see some unfamiliar players play in some unusual team from across the globe. It’s often argued that we don’t care for internationals because we see all these foreign players every week… but no, we see the English Premier League players, perhaps a few La Liga or Bundesliga players, but really, how many people watch a significant amount of these foreign leagues? More to the point, football is about teams and narratives - you may know one or two players in a game between Ecuador and Chile, but when it comes to international fixtures, they are playing for different teams with different dramatic narratives.
The World Cup isn’t all about the finals, it’s about the whole journey. Everybody knows that Uruguay made it to the semi-finals in 2010, and yes it was a great story, but there’s so much more. Uruguay in fact struggled to qualify, advancing only after a controversial 2-1 playoff win over Costa Rica… before this they only finished 5th in South American qualifying after losing their final game to Argentina’s-84th minute winner in Montevideo. South America is definitely the best place for high quality entertainment. Whereas in Europe we complain about too many games lacking a real competitive edge, in South America this isn’t the case, with only really Bolivia and Paraguay out of it at the half way stage. Paraguay reached the quarter-finals in 2010’s tournament in South Africa, while Bolivia beat Argentina 6-1 in the last qualifying campaign. Hardly, then, equivalents of San Marino, Luxembourg et al.
CONCACAF, too, is surprisingly entertaining; having qualified from earlier rounds, the minnows have really put up a fight, with Guyana helping to destroy El Salvador’s campaign, whilst Antigua and Barbuda so nearly ruined USA’s campaign last Friday before a last-minute Eddie Johnson goal won it for USA. Even Oceania provides great fun: in a section full of minnows you find some fantastic matches such as Solomon Islands 2-6 New Caledonia (admittedly a big scoreline); the third New Caledonia goal was hilarious whereas their fifth was exquisite (watch the goals here).
So rather than complaining that your country isn’t entertaining enough, why not hunt down these action packed games elsewhere. On last Friday’s round of international fixtures I watched bits of around 10 matches including a very interesting Armenia v Italy clash, some exquisite finishing by Radamel Falcao in the Columbia v Paraguay match and some suicidal lack of discipline by Chile in Ecuador. You may think that these games aren’t on TV and thus not accessible, but a simple search of a betting site will provide you with the ability to watch a vast array of matches.
The European minnows
There is clearly something lacking in the European qualification system, but I found a lot of the comments regarding San Marino rather rude and disrespectful, particularly on ITV’s coverage of the England match. Andy Townsend commented that they do not even try and win, labelling the game a waste of everybody’s time. There is a significant difference with not trying to win and not being able to win: they could attack a lot more but they’d probably lose 17-2. By playing the way they did, they were almost certainly closer to victory than if they “tried”.
These nations really do care… just look at these celebrations from New Caledonia’s players after beating New Zealand. Moreover the suggestion is that these minnows will never be able to compete, but The Faroe Islands and Luxemburg have shown tremendous improvement. The Faroe Islands took the lead against Sweden last Friday, and it took a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired response for Sweden to win; note that Italy also struggled to a 1-0 victory there just over a year ago. Don’t be too surprised if they cause Republic of Ireland a fair few issues tonight.
A possible change in the qualifying system
That said, the system in Europe has clearly become stale to a lot of people and so perhaps there should be some pre-qualifying for say the bottom 12 or so teams (for example) whereby they earn the right to play the bigger teams. Some people have commented that this would mean these teams would never get the chance to have their career defining moment at Wembley… but perhaps they should earn it. Firstly, these teams may gain from playing similar opposition; moreover, there’s nothing to say that Luxemburg wouldn’t get through a couple games with Malta and Moldova and thus get to the main qualifying section. The difference is this time they would have earnt the right and also gained some confidence from winning a few games.
What is perhaps more revolutionary would be to change the relationship between international and domestic football. Our negativity is often due to internationals interrupting the league season, yet too short to really allow us to get immersed into. Thus an idea often suggested by Gabriele Marcotti from The Times seems the best solution: to make the international season 2 blocks of 5 or 6 fixtures so it is less intermittent and we can re-establish internationals as an important part of football once again.
Maybe I’m just a bit quirky, but to me drama and sub-plots are what sport is really about. International football still has the drama; you might have to search for it, but it’s really not that hard to find.
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