So we find ourselves at the start of yet another International break in the domestic football programme, or as popular Arsenal blogger Arseblog has christened them, ‘Interlulls’. The marginal amount of anticipation for England followers comes with the sacking of Sam Allardyce and the appointment of Gareth Southgate as interim coach; although in all honesty this has done little to generate any excitement for me in the upcoming fixtures against Malta and Slovenia. In fact I will be at Old Trafford watching the climax to the Rugby League season on Saturday evening, an altogether more enticing prospect!
I readily admit that I am a huge fan of the major international tournaments, which is probably as much to do with having an excuse to submerse myself in football for four whole weeks and pretty much ignore the rest of the world completely. However, increasingly I find the mid-season international breaks to be mind-numbingly dull, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. The breaks that feature actual ‘competitive’ matches in the form of the qualifiers for the major tournaments are bad enough, but those featuring the dreaded international friendlies are something akin to torture of the cruellest order.
Thinking about this at the start of another period of just under two weeks without the buzz of club football got me thinking about why I hate international breaks so much; I came up with the following by means of a start:
It interrupts the season just as it is getting going – after a summer period in which we all recharge our batteries, as things settle down after the three-ring circus that is transfer deadline day; just as things start to get going properly, the brakes are applied, the fixtures put on hold and players disappear off all over the globe.
No proper news to report – we live in an age of minute-by-minute news reporting and speculation, particularly in the football world, but all of a sudden there is nothing to discuss, report or even blog about; instead we are left in a football vacuum in which we have to feign interest in our national team and their upcoming match against a team we know absolutely nothing about. Worst of all for this creature of football habit there is no Match of the Day to enjoy after the pub on Saturday night.
The games are boring, the quality is low and it is all too predictable- with the spread of teams across the European qualification groups diluting the quality of competition in the groups, it means for the most part the groups are predictable which renders the matches boring.
Injuries to your club’s key players – I used to think this was a uniquely Arsenal issue, but talking to fans of other clubs it seems that they hold the same fear, that in playing for their countries your best players pick-up an injury that rules them out for the club that pays their wages for a significant period of time. Or perhaps even more infuriatingly, the constant travel and general fatigue causes their form to drop and impacts on their contribution.
In all honesty the real issue for me is the disruption of the usual football routine, rather than any animosity towards England, or any other national team for that matter. I have long felt that there has to be a way of altering the structure of international football to make it more meaningful and interesting and to reduce or eradicate altogether the interruptions to the domestic programmes.
The starting point would have to be a reduction in the number of qualification games that are played; currently there are 54 teams in Europe competing for 13 places at the World Cup, the teams are sub-divided into 9 groups of 6 teams meaning that each team has to play 10 qualification matches. This burden of matches could be reduced by increasing the number of groups and reducing the number of teams within them and/or having a pre-qualifying phase for lower ranked teams, similar to the Champions League.
If the number of qualifying games could be significantly reduced, say by decreasing groups to a maximum of 3 or 4 teams, then not only would the number of matches required be reduced but the competitiveness would be increased, especially if there is pre-qualification. Equally a reduced number of matches would be easier to fit into the season, perhaps in dedicated periods immediately before and after the domestic programme is completed; or even in condensed mini-tournaments in the summers when there is no major international tournament.
If international football is to hold a place within the interest of real football devotees it feels very much as if change is needed.