World Cup 2018

International Friendlies: A Futile Prelude to World Cup Preparation

Finally, at last, we have gotten through yet another set of international friendlies. Pat yourselves on the back everyone, you’ve earned it. To say that getting through these games has been a slog would be an understatement. A weekend without football at this time of year is something no fan should be put through.

World Cup ‘preparation’

Every time they roll around, one wonders just how this format of international football can go on. Right as we are coming to the business end of the club season, two weeks are taken from us just so that the likes of Gareth Southgate, Jogi Loew, Jorge Sampaoli and Julen Lopetegui can try out a new player or new formation against some team that has seemingly been chosen at random and said to be ‘preparation’ for the World Cup.

But, how on Earth could a friendly actually prepare anyone for the pressure of a World Cup? Just how useful can a friendly be to a manager, as opposed to seeing their players play for their club sides in actual competitive fixtures?

Sure, of the top 5 leagues in Europe, 4 of them are all but over. But, the Champions League is now heating up and the pressure will be mounting on the remaining sides. Except, in between rounds, all the players have been taken away from their day-to-day surroundings; taken away from their managers, who are working with them to improve their game each passing week, and, instead, lumped into a massive squad where there’s not even a guarantee of playing. Even if they do play, the drop off in competitive edge is massive. It’s not worth it, surely?!

What use are these games?

Without the intensity of a competitive fixture, or something on the line to play for, the question remains: what use are these games? Do they need to happen? At least if there had still been qualifiers that needed to be decided then it would make some sense, but there isn’t.

Why the calendar isn’t adjusted during tournament years is beyond comprehension. If they had simply kept the club season going as it had been, thus allowing it to end two weeks earlier, this surely would have been preferable for everyone. It would have kept the momentum going of club football, wouldn’t have broken anything up, and it would have given international managers that extra time together to work on final preparations before the World Cup kicks-off.

There is a continuation to this strategy that suits everyone involved. It also opens up the broader point that international football, in general, needs to be more thought through. It still feels like it’s stuck in an endless loop of just butting in on club football, needlessly, until eventually there is a tournament and people care about it again.

Instead of interrupting every so often for a couple games here and there, it would make a lot more sense to just dedicate a month to international football in the middle of every season – say, February or March. During this period, a whole lot more time can be spent by the national managers to work with and get to know their squads.

This continuation will gradually make for more entertaining international matches. Teams will be able to learn and implement systems with the practice of working on it in training for a whole month, as well as multiple matches in a row. There can be one of these types of breaks in the middle of the season, as well as one in the summer when the players are done playing with their clubs.

A step in the right direction

The introduction of the UEFA Nations League, which will be starting in September, is a minor step in the right direction for international football. It reduces the number of friendlies played – which, I believe, are the biggest issue with these breaks. With the World Cup coming up in only 10 weeks, just how much has Southgate learned from England’s 1-0 win against the Netherlands and 1-1 draw with Italy? By now, he should know his squad and who will actually play.

At least with the upcoming Nations League, however, these breaks will always have some kind of competitive edge. How seriously teams take this new competition remains to be seen, but with a qualification place at the 2020 European Championships up for grabs, there will at least be something tangible to play for.

So, that is at least a minor victory that we, as fans, should take out of this international break: that there will be so fewer friendlies from here on out is a first step in fixing international football. It will hopefully be the last time that international football is merely just an unneeded distraction from the club game. And hopefully this is the start of a re-emergence of international football being the pinnacle of the game that it used to be.

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