Food. The essential component to human survival. For those fortunate enough to be in a position to afford food on a daily basis, there are a raft of options to choose from. Pasta, vegetables, meat, fish, bread, fruit, rice.
Tapas, take-away, fast food, fresh food. Different flavours, different textures, scents and tastes. Food can be a wonderful exploration of adventure when trying new and exciting tastes. On the contrary, when eating the same meal repeatedly without change, food is often bland and un-interesting.
The ‘football funnies/joke’ Twitter accounts will post stuff along the lines of “league football returns this weekend, thank god”, graphics will be created attaching the occupations of amateur internationals to their positions in the name of “banter” and certain journalists will write articles finding multiple ways of expressing their apparent irritation at having to trudge to Wembley to cover their national team. Even well respected journalists fall foul of misrepresenting the international game.
When continuously served the same dish, it is easy to grow disinterested and unimpressed. Football is the same as food in that regard, and like everything, mirrors life. The overarching narrative surrounding the international break has been one of disinterest and dismay.
When the stream of stories from England training sessions and press conferences dries up, the tabloids find themselves resorting to transfer rumours and general speculation (Re: The Daily Mail’s ludicrous headline linking ‘crocked’ Mesut Özil with Bayern Munich in January).
Sam Wallace of the Independent, usually a very fine writer, wrote a piece on San Marino in which he questioned their participation in the European Championship qualifiers and groaned about the general standard of international football. “As ever, the enduring question when it comes to San Marino is: why do they bother?” The reason they bother is the same as any player from a footballing powerhouse. International football is about national pride, representing your country at the highest level you possibly can.
In essence, San Marino players probably have more reason to refuse to play at international level. They take time away from their day jobs and, unlike England internationals, are presumably not paid by their federation to play. At tournament football, the standard should be high, but qualifying is about so much more than the ability of the teams. Those discerning voices are gravely missing the point.
The extra qualifiers are another common gripe appearing in publications and on social media. Michel Platini’s week of football has been roundly used as a stick to beat the UEFA president with, but this idea is unfairly derided. Platini has done much to harm the future of competitive tournaments and the sport as we know it, but attempting to focus more attention on the qualifying campaign is hardly an irrational notion. The real issue is the extension of the competition to a 24 team tournament, rendering qualifying struggles almost obsolete for the higher ranking countries.
Despite the change of format, the week of football has actually been excellent and to their credit, Sky Sports have embraced it. Whilst it is clearly a necessity now that they have a channel dedicated to European football, Sky have shown a raft of fixtures and offered the simultaneous games through their red button service. Oh, and the football has been intriguing.
On Thursday, Slovakia stunned defending European champions Spain 2-1 in Group C, perhaps the greatest result in their history. Friday saw Azerbaijan equalise in Palermo and come within ten minutes of holding Italy to a famous draw in Group H before Giorgio Chiellini atoned for his own goal at the right end, and Poland beat world champions Germany for the first time in nineteen meetings on Saturday in Warsaw.
Across Europe, various stories and results have captured the imagination. The new qualifying system has offered smaller nations a new stimulus, the chance of making a major tournament. That should be welcomed, not frowned upon.
Which takes us back to the food analogy. When you only consume one type, you are ill-equipped to judge other food. Some observers of the English game only watch their own product so perhaps it is worth opening up to the possibilities elsewhere. A change of perspective can be enlightening.