Could anyone have asked for a better World Cup (okay, besides maybe the gracious hosts) this past summer? Brazil 2014 had it all: goals galore, shocking upsets, samba, vibrant atmospheres, emerging superstars, etc. International football played on such a grand scale truly is a spectacle to behold.
It’s a pity when international friendlies seem to do the opposite and suck the life right out of world football, especially when La Liga, the EPL, and other top European domestics are shifting into high gear.
Less than 2 months have passed since Germany hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy at the Maracana, but international football is back with a long, resounding sigh. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but an international break this early after the World Cup seems relatively pointless.
In England, the Three Lions set a record low for attendance when only 40,181 (over 8,000 less than their previous low) showed up to watch a brutal 1-0 victory over Norway. Whether a half-empty Wembley indicates how fans feel about international friendlies or how they feel about their national team at the moment is open to your interpretation, but it does indicate that nobody cares.
Many were probably surprised to learn that Gibraltar is a country (it’s really not) when it played its first competitive friendly as a “nation” against Poland during the break. The Gibraltarians were unceremoniously thrashed 7-0 at the Estadio Algarve in Portugal, which will serve as its unofficial base until a proper stadium can be erected in Gibraltar. Nothing quite peaks the interest like watching a newly-formed team representing a territory of 30,000 people get pummeled by Robert Lewandowski and 10 other guys in a meaningless Euro qualifier.
UEFA might argue that it needs to start its qualifiers for Euro 2016 pronto, but it can afford to push everything back, considering that the final playoff legs are scheduled to take place in the middle of November 2015. Besides, pretty much everybody qualifies for the finals now with the field expanding to 24 teams (by my estimations, that means everybody in Europe will qualify for Euro 2024).
Okay, so there were some highlights. Argentina really caught the eye in their World Cup final rematch against Germany, even if Joachim Loew felt the need to remind us that the 4-2 result didn’t matter much.
“It can’t be revenge. You can’t bring the final back,” Loew told reporters almost stoically.
The electric atmosphere inside of the Westfalenstadion prior to Germany’s encounter with Scotland was a sight to behold too, even if the unpleasant affair that followed was a struggle to watch.
International friendlies are easy to pick on, especially when top players are always pulling out of their respective squads and meaningless games are sometimes played at walking pace, but they are a necessary evil. They give managers a chance to evaluate talent, allow players from different clubs to train together as a cohesive unit, and keep international football somewhat relevant throughout the year.
Still, that doesn’t mean that FIFA should cram a host of exhibitions down our throats like foie gras, particularly after something as glorious and addicting as the World Cup. We had fun this summer FIFA but, please, give us some space.
The solution here is simple: place a moratorium on international football for the remainder of the year following a World Cup. It would do managers, players, and fans alike a world of good, and it is an entirely feasible proposition.
Players, especially those whose teams went deep in the tournament, would benefit by receiving more recovery time which, in turn, would leave them less prone to burnout. The modern professional footballer plays year round with very little down time. To put things into perspective, Lionel Messi has played 48 matches for Barcelona in the past year accompanied by 10 appearances for Argentina in 2014. That’s a staggering 1 match played in every 6 days, and that doesn’t include the matches that Messi played for Argentina at the backend of 2013.
Philipp Lahm (30), Per Mertesacker (29), and Franck Ribery (31) have all decided to retire from international duty when it could be said that they still have something to offer their national teams, while Tim Howard recently decided to take a break from the USMNT so that he can spend more time with his family. Landon Donovan took a sabbatical from soccer that lasted almost 6 months after he described feeling exhausted and burnt out from nonstop playing.
Instead of flying them halfway around the globe, why not let players stay with their clubs to regain match fitness following a protracted offseason? Any manager worth his salt will tell you that long-distance travel and trying to regain fitness aren’t a very good mix.
“…having to fly a lot and the jet lag, it is not very positive for a good preparation,” Louis van Gaal told reporters during Manchester United’s grueling preseason tour across the United States.
Club managers would benefit by being able to build on their teams’ early season momentum. Garry Monk is probably alone in his office right now cursing up a storm as the 2 week break arrests the momentum created by Swansea City’s phenomenal start. On the other hand, newer managers such as Louis van Gaal and Mauricio Pochettino would probably like to have their starting XI’s present as they try to integrate them into their new systems.
Above all, fans would benefit by being spared the doldrums of boring post-World Cup friendlies. Having to choose between watching heavyweights Luxembourg and Belarus slug it out or watching Macedonia defend against Spain for 90 minutes when the memory of Brazil 2014 is still fresh in the back of your head is akin to Chinese water torture.
Of course, proposing a moratorium and instituting a moratorium are two different things. Asking FIFA – an organization that still hasn’t figured out how to relocate the 2022 World Cup after erroneously gifting it to Qatar despite the continued mistreatment of migrant workers, climate concerns, and numerous other red flags – to put a halt to international breaks in the direct aftermath of a World Cup is probably unrealistic. Pity that the world’s greatest sporting event is organized by such incompetent criminals.
On the bright side, the English Premier League returns this Saturday.