What do divorce, a hangover and the international break all have in common? The answer is not, though you could be forgiven for assuming it, the key features of an average year for Paul Gascoigne during the ‘90s, nor a premonition of two thirds of Jack Grealish’s future if his summer antics are anything to go by. The answer, in fact, is that these are all bad things.
Sure, they may start well. Ten years spent mostly shirtless on a Caribbean island married to a former supermodel whose name consists of multiple z’s, a wild night spent dancing on the table leading the bar in a rendition of Wonderwall, beating Germany 5-1 in Munich – what’s not to like?
But then, before you know it, you’re waking up with a head full of angry bees on a floor more suited to give you septicemia than comfort, your lottery winnings having run dry with Miss World 2012 resultantly realising that your conversation is actually rather boring and you’re losing 3-2 to Croatia on a wet night at Wembley.
Ultimately, our weekends are better off spent even watching a goalless draw between West Brom and Southampton.
The international break is a stagnant affair, an interruption to the excitement of domestic football and a widely considered nuisance. It’s time it went.
It’s hard to see the plus side of watching England ritually spank San Marino in a game where a win is barely greeted with a nod of approval but a loss may as well be the end of the world as we know it.
Nor is this markedly different against Slovenia, Estonia or Lithuania and, when it comes down to it, we’ll never be as good as we think we are so, really, what’s the point of this exercise in either interminable boredom or fetishised masochism?
The same argument could be applied to Germany, Brazil, Spain or any other major footballing nation. International football does not provide the entertainment it promises.
We love the spectacle of the World Cup and the European Championship – the pageantry and the performance, the highs and the lows, the last minute drama of an Andrés Iniesta goal catapulting Spain to their first ever tournament success; but will we ever truly come to love a week’s break where the most we’ll have to talk about is Wayne Rooney achieving a record he’s been heading towards for months?
Nevertheless, whilst the major nations might be bored, why steal from Turkey the excitement of beating the Netherlands 3-0 after a dismal qualifying campaign, or take from San Marino the ecstasy of a last minute equaliser against Lithuania to achieve the minnows’ first away goal in fourteen years?
After all, taking a goal from San Marino is the churlish international equivalent of not just taking a bone from a puppy but turning the hoover on while you do it.
However, the truth is that international football is failing even on its own terms. I may be asking the questions raised by international football rather than offering the solutions that no one seems to know but it seems that any available alternative would offer the same benefits as the current system.
The primary aim of the international break is to provide a structure for the best teams possible to qualify for the ensuing competition. No difficulties there; any sort of tournament could achieve that. So why, then, are we persisting with the current model which not only engenders unnecessary boredom but prevents development of cohesive international teams?
It’s long been argued that, particularly in England, the lack of time together inhibits team unity and prevents players like Daniel Sturridge from replicating the kind of form achieved at club level. After all, when you’re used to playing alongside Luis Suárez, it’s going to take some time to get used to the subtle technique of Danny Welbeck.
The teams that win tend to draw players from few domestic sides – of Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning side, Joan Capdevila was the only starting player who did not play for Barcelona or Real Madrid.
At international level, players are expected to perform different roles than those they generally fulfill at club level – just ask Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, whose pairing in central midfield had about as much unity as the French team in 2010.
As such, it’ll take some time together before players are able to get used to the peculiarities and differences of their international teammates or even to come to like them, hence Roy Hodgson’s attempts to get more time together for the national team.
Given this endemic barrier to international footballing development, it seems illogical that qualification occurs in batches of two games interspersed, months apart, where in the interim, otherwise international allies engage in furious duels as domestic enemies.
It seems even more illogical that, particularly in England, we’re taken away from the drama of the best league in the world to watch teams composed largely of players unable to even make the grade as professionals.
Much like beer and hangovers, though, football fans tend to love international competitions and hate June. The World Cup remains possibly the most exciting and dramatic tableau football has to offer, inspiring massive crowds and wild passions, with the European Championship not far behind.
In the dark wilderness of the summer months, where tumbleweed instead blows over the arid and parched turf of the Premier League, there is a gaping abyss that can only be sated by football. Both problems could conveniently be solved by changing the qualification process.
What about using the break in domestic football enforced by Qatar 2022 to ensure international parity by moving half the qualification fixtures to take up the winter break? What about staging a mini-tournament for qualification the summer before the main event? What about just changing a system that clearly isn’t working?
Any one of these would provide the same number of participants in international tournaments. Any one of these would provide an opportunity for underdogs like Iceland to achieve memorable victories against the Netherlands, or provide teams like Gibraltar with the opportunity to face off against the kind of players their stars could only dream of playing. Any one of these would offer more drama, more excitement and more opportunity for teams to develop together than the current model.
The truth is, whatever the alternative, the current model isn’t working. Whilst international football suits fine teams with weak domestic leagues, the same benefits could be achieved by alternatives without forcing the major footballing nations to pay the price.
Further, in a globalised world where it is the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga that provide the point of reference for most of the world, it is hard to imagine that the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands prefer to watch their team get roundly beaten by Northern Ireland than to watch Anthony Martial’s brace in a thrilling contest between Manchester United and Southampton.
The international break locks in the hegemony of sides whose stars play for one or two teams over more diverse outfits, though to avoid accusations of this being a classic case of English sour grapes this is not the main quarrel here with the international break. Rather, there are far more watertight arguments against this unnecessary intrusion on our time and patience.
International football is stagnant, interrupting the excitement of domestic football and fails by its own standards, at the same time as ignoring the opportunity to correct a glaring summer void in the football calendar.
At the very least, in the United Kingdom, we’re paying a needless price both domestically and internationally for little gain. The answer is clear – if you love England, it’s time to scrap the international break as we know it.