‘I’m too good to you, I’m way too good to you, you take my love for granted, I just don’t understand it’. Yes, these are the immortal words of the Canadian-Barbadian philosophers Drake and Rihanna in one of the most undoubtedly catchy pop songs of recent times. But for me, these words don’t just play the static roles of bringing the song to an emotionally-stimulating climax summing up the difficult relationship between two trying lovers, but instead summarise the similarly strained ties between football fans and international football at this point in time. It seems strange to me how much abuse and blame can be targeted at a form of the beautiful game which at best is played about every two months, and features representation from each and every corner of the globe, when the real issues in football from my perspective seem to be in the upper echelons of the club game, which Twitter users and Instagram ‘football fan’ pages seem to covet without exception. Maybe it’s the fact that this unique form of football has failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of fans, obsessed and self-entitled to constant, high-tempo, engrossing football broadcasted to their living rooms thanks to the magical monopoly of Sky Sports and BT Sport over global club football competitions from the Premier League to the FA Cup, La Liga and Champions League. Question is; are these Instagram pages just pandering to popular belief for followers or expressing their own views which others then pick up? There must be some explanation for the quiet, muttering backlash against international football, or the much-hated ‘international break’ as they like to tarnish it, as if clubs should be entitled to playing all the time and it is so kind of them to allow their national FA’s to organise a national side to compete with others.
I don’t think that allowing their national team to meet and play is too much to ask from clubs and fans across each country really, as in fact it should only be a positive thing for them. It should be seen as an honour for clubs to have their players rewarded with a place in the best squad a country has available, and fans should see it as an interesting and different experience of the game. In fact, I’m most perplexed because I personally care passionately about the state of international football, as some of my earliest and best memories of football come from the 2010 South Africa World Cup. I can vividly remember when I ran out of the house onto gravel with just my socks on (big mistake, and yes I was wearing other things on my body other than socks, don’t be so childish) celebrating Steven Gerrard’s goal against the USA, when I was sat in the kitchen on my own watching Spain against Paraguay with free rein of all food and drink and when I stayed up late just to witness Andres Iniesta’s tournament-deciding goal in extra time against the Netherlands. I was inspired by the backdrop of Table Mountain from BBC’s coverage and caught up in the seemingly endless drama of the tournament itself, just as I was with my first Euros in 2012 and in every major international tournament (from an England perspective) since.
But I sense it isn’t the aspect of international tournaments that is the target of impatience with the purely FIFA-regulated form of the game from fans, rather the stop-start style which has become synonymous with international football or the arguably slow, predictable and dreary qualifying period for the eventual tournaments themselves. Let’s be clear; international football has an image problem, especially in qualifiers and friendlies, and that for a lot of people is far too easy to latch onto and give as their reason for backing away from that specific form of the game. For fans who want to see the top players in the world facing off against each other on a daily, or weekly, basis, international football isn’t as desirable, as for every one match between, let’s say, Spain and Germany, there’s going to be about 10 matches between, for example, San Marino and Estonia. That’s no insult to the latter pairing, in fact I think matches such as those are part of what makes international football so great, but it is a simple fact that impatient modern day fans aren’t going to want to tune into that specific match if it were to be televised on any channel, let alone with the insight of expert pundits (paid hundreds of thousands) on Sky or BT.
I guess the main reason for this indifferent feeling towards international football is the typically leisurely way in which most teams go about their in-game approach, with laboured play almost unrecognisable from the rapid style of most Premier League teams (admittedly in the league which is widely recognised as the most physically demanding in the world). This laboured passing style, synonymous with the England team in particular, is pretty off-putting for potential and long-serving fans, especially when coupled with the defensive approach of more defensive or smaller footballing nations such as Slovakia and most probably Malta today (Saturday 8th). These teams are infuriating for many, as they will happily throw entertainment value out of the window in order to pursue three points on the counter or one lucky point parking the bus. The thing is though, when as a country you only have ten qualifying matches to do the best you can and hopefully qualify for the World Cup or Euros for example, which would be an absolutely massive progression for a smaller country such as Iceland (don’t remind us), you can’t afford any slip-ups or many defeats, so you have to find an effective tactic for you. So for many managers of smaller nations, the way forward is, ironically, to go back to basics and dig in for results, no matter how ugly it may be. So try and appreciate how much it matters to these nations the next time you’re lamenting their ‘boring’ style of play, as nobody wants to see total walkovers in international football, do they?
But let me take you back for a while; to the days before true professionalism among the best players, and when international football was more realistically the most respected and revered level of the game, no matter whether it was a friendly, qualifier or tournament finals game. Playing for England made legends of local players, and success in international competitions could be totally transformative, a godsend in fact, for the countries which were so fortunate to taste it, so the form of the game was held in a very high regard by managers, players and fans the world around. In fact, club managers, unselfish and very sporting in their actions, would happily let their star players go away for international duty if it meant the nation would have a better chance at success, in stark contrast to the way Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho have barred players from being called up in the past with examples including Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Diego Costa. Fans had a great love of their national team, putting all their hopes behind them rather than the half-hearted efforts we see from England fans, worn down by years of self-inflicted misery, these days, and the national media arguably weren’t as quick to react to slight failure, and were more praising of positive performances. Well, at least the evidence that the team would’ve been lambasted would be small, as there wasn’t social media to tear the players and management down as soon as they made one simple mistake. I’ve got to say, there was more desire on the part of the players back then, as they didn’t injure easily like these soft players today who perplexingly pull something in training or warming up for the match itself, so those on the pitch were handed far more respect, at least for their physical capabilities rather than the wage they ‘earned’ and the playboy lifestyles they lived, which seem to be the only reasons we envy professional footballers these days.
These were the days in which international football meant everything to players. You could have a terrible club season and totally redeem your reputation with one outstanding performance for your nation, particularly if it was at the World Cup finals, believe you me. It was the pinnacle of the game, but that is just something you can’t say about international football today without sounding deluded, and for me that is a regrettable sign of the advances money has made in wildly improving wages of honestly fairly average players into the distasteful spectacle we see today. The thing is, once cash-loaded chairmen came in to fund shots at success at clubs across the country in England, professionalism made huge advances in eventually bringing footballer’s wages above the national average for a worker, leading on to today where certain players can earn ten times the national average yearly wage in just a week. That is absolutely ridiculous, and shows how club football overtaking international football – in which players can typically earn a few thousand pounds for each appearance, which is ironically in most cases donated to charity - has edited the landscape of football with its unbelievable rise in stature. Maybe, after all I’ve mentioned, this is just an Anglo-centric issue, which no other nation faces on quite the same scale, but there are other nations which have wildly unachieved on the international stage considering their history and love of the game, such as Spain until 2008 and, actually, no other example I can think of (that’s a bit sad for England, isn’t it really?).
So how can internationals repair their broken reputation and bring back fans to what seems a pretty lifeless and dejected party right now? First of all, I guess we have to decide who can be held responsible to fix it in the best and most realistic way they see possible. Is it FIFA, is it the continental organisations such as UEFA, is it us as the fans, or is it the national FA’s who each have a team representing their national pride against the best of the best around them? Well, I see it as each of our responsibilities in all honesty. Obviously, there are some major things FIFA could do to advance the game in terms of excitement and accessibility, as it needs a shake-up to deal with the complaints it has been given, meaning FIFA should be focusing on what the fans want as much as is possible and realistic. Personally, I was fairly unmoved at first by president Gianni Infantino’s suggestion that the World Cup might include a whopping 48 teams sooner rather than later, more than the original 40 he promised in his election manifesto and way more than the current 32. But I think it could honestly be a good idea for the development of the game is growing nations, with more involvement from wider regions of the globe - for example Oceania, where more often than not no side gets to the finals, and Asia, which despite being the most populous continent on earth is only guaranteed four places, with another on offer in the inter-continental play-off phase.
But I’d argue myself that the World Cup isn’t the problem in terms of international football, as it is the most viewed sporting event in the world, and the most lucratively prestigious, so it certainly isn’t failing. Where Infantino and FIFA should be focusing their efforts and funds is to the preliminary stages, qualifying and friendlies, where interest is flailing and so much more could be made of the promise these matches have, considering the vast array of nations and cultures involved. By delegating this responsibility to the continental associations though, I think FIFA are being irresponsible and lazy, as they aren’t standing up for what is, in reality, their problem, and I don’t think that is good enough. For example, UEFA have had to stand up over the past few years to form their own Nations League, an exciting proposition scheduled to start in late 2018 in which all 55 UEFA nations will be able to play regular competitive games, replacing friendlies, in four separate leagues of four groups, featuring promotion and relegation as rewards and punishments for either prospering or failing to perform. Now this is great for the future of European football, but it’s not going to be the case for those outside the continent, so what are these other nations going to do? See their football turn to meaningless mush while more prosperous European nations are off making money and new fans? For me, and I’m sure for people outside the continent, this isn’t good enough, and they need FIFA to step up to the plate and get things done to hopefully recreate this system on their continent, or maybe even on a global scale, with the best sides in the world all facing off regularly. Let’s be clear; this is what fans these days want, world-class players from each nation facing off to decide who can be the best, and showcase their skills to the world for entertainment, because at the end of the day that is what football is supposed to be about for the fans.
More investment could also be pumped by the federation into lesser nations for better facilities and footballing systems, as if this could happen, it would make these nations more competitive on the international stage, and who wouldn’t want that? It would become a truly World Cup at that point; when the best of the best from all over the globe are competing to the top of their abilities. Being good hosts to these countries by gifting them these new facilities would also cement trust and garner further interest in the game, which is absolutely vital for the future of international football, and is totally doable for FIFA, as if they had to spend any of their billions on anything, surely this would be worth it?
More than anything, FIFA needs to fix the broken trust and the holes in the system dissipating interest rapidly, patching up the relationship between the matches it presides over and the fans that hold stakes in them. For these fans, cheering for their nation to do well is one of the most powerful emotions in sport of any sort, particularly football, and if fans can do that without complaint, I think that is a success for FIFA, as it means they are doing their job. It’s not too much to ask from the most powerful organisation in the sport, is it?
You’ve got to say though, a portion of the blame for some of the non-events witnessed on the international stage over the past few years must fall to the players themselves, who can’t be seriously ‘giving their all’ if they are strolling around for fair portions of the match, and especially if they can’t beat Iceland (can you still sense the bitterness?). Admittedly, with statements like the ones released this week from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that being back in the squad made him realise how much it meant was encouraging to hear, but you have to take everything footballers say these days with a pinch of salt as they go through hours of media training in order to know what the right thing to say is, and in this case it was. I do think players take being in their national side for granted, as us fans take the form of football for granted as I explained at the start (well done if you’re still with me by the way), and this does need to be addressed.
If it was my decision, and I know it never will be, I would change footballer’s contracts to the system used in English cricket, where central and incremental contracts are used by the ECB (English Cricket Board) to reward the best players with different types of contract. The former, central, means the ECB, or FA in this case, pays the entirety of the player’s wage and can therefore effectively own them for use in competition, but players can still be played for their club and transferred as fees are paid between teams. The latter, incremental, is a lesser version which results in the national association paying an additional wage to the player on top of the club’s wage, so the player can be used on and off for the national side. Seems pretty simple, right? It is, and it has led to plenty of success for England’s respective Test, ODI and Twenty20 teams over the past few years as the national side can pick and choose who it wants to represent them on the international stage depending on how they perform, and take away their contract if they don’t. While there are distinct differences between the two sports, with internationals undoubtedly being the pinnacle of the game in cricket and less money swamping the game in the bat-and-ball sport – future England captain and star batsman across all three formats Joe Root receiving around £1 million a year in his latest contract – I feel this system could work in football. That is providing football was ever likely to want to change, but it’s widely renowned as the most fickle and stubborn sport around, and I don’t see any reason for that changing with the amount of billionaire investors and corrupt officials there are in the game right now. This change wouldn’t suit them, even if it would incentivise international players to work much harder for their nations and in a way cap players wages (which can only be a good thing) as the FA couldn’t afford to pay Wayne Rooney £250,000 a week. Oh well, it’s worth suggesting at least, don’t you think?
In a modern footballing world of fakery, money and corruption then, international football is the big loser of the game. With this form of the game; nothing is forced, there is very little that goes on behind closed doors, very little money is involved (other than in a national manager’s hefty contract) and it is basically impossible to use as a Trojan horse for dodgy dealings (other than if you’re FIFA, and you award Qatar the 2022 World Cup in totally legal circumstances). I’ve got to say, I feel sorry for international football as it is being pushed to the back of most fans’ minds, all because these short-minded viewers are being brainwashed by the entertainment provided by a disgustingly cash-fuelled, star-studded machine at the club level and being deceived over what real football is. Sure, they’ll be all over the Euros and World Cup, but they are only too happy to jump on the bandwagon criticising the qualification system. I understand your sentiments, but you cannot be that hypocritical and self-compromising, otherwise you just look like a fool. But the main point here is that international football used to make heroes of certain players and used to be the absolute highlight of the game, but it now stands as an apology for competitive football, forgotten and thrown away by many and unable to capture imaginations. Something has to be done now to salvage a vital component of the footballing scenery for fans everywhere, as it desperately needs a revival to return it to its former glory.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!