Sighs and groans from all corners of the country often greet mid-season international breaks here in English football. However when realisation sets in and the sheer thought of no football for three whole months during the summer becomes a reality, those who lambast the Football Association for allowing such breaks to interrupt the flow of the Premier League or EFL calendar for what may appear on paper as a pair of pointless international friendlies or preliminary qualifying rounds, are transformed and soon welcoming the European Championships or World Cup with open arms. Even when you know full well that for England at least, it has become all too familiar of a tale and their destiny, if previous years is something to go by, is already marked out for them before a ball is kicked. A comfortable, morale-boosting cruise through the preliminary qualifying rounds reignites the World Cup fever that football fans would probably be lost without during a World Cup year, then leads to England making hard-work of eventually qualifying from a group that look like much easier challengers on paper.
From there onwards it’s a case of when more so than if England will get knocked out. Brazil (2002), Germany (2010) and even in last years 2016 European Championship, the shock of being knocked out by Iceland still hang settled in some quarters of the England support. Then no doubt a post-mortem of the tournament will consequently, as it always does, take place at the FA with the future of the serving England manager considered with a degree of urgency that England fans would have liked their country’s players to mirror on the pitch when it really mattered. An often underwhelming managerial appointment soon follows and before you know it we’ve come full circle as all eyes then turn to a new round of qualifying fixtures aimed at what has often become inevitable qualification to either one of the international competitions somewhere down the line. The old club over country debate soon resurfaced and wearing three lions on your shirt is no more… At least not for another three or four years. The expectation comes and goes but the hurt goes on – how many years is that now?
Yet away from the European continent, in parts of the world perhaps not blessed with the same degree of financial resources that many of the top leagues in Europe have in reserve, the international break at least seems to mean much, much more than it does for fans of European clubs. The first of many qualifying games in an often protracted group stage in the likes of CONCACAF, South America and across Africa are welcomed with open arms by both fans and the players that regularly display a genuine willingness to travel the several thousands of miles needed to get back their native homeland and bring home all three points for their country.
From both an arguable sense of greater national pride and stepping out on the pitch in your country’s national colours to the impact of a player’s distance from his home country arguably making the love of playing internationally that bit stronger than those a short train journey away from England’s training centre during an international break, other continents most certainly embrace rather than endure the international break. Even in spite of a country’s individual problems and difficulties, football’s great pulling power of bringing communities and different citizens together through their shared love of the sport is what should differentiate the international break to the domestic football calendar yet you can’t help but feel a severe lack of togetherness every time it comes to taking your attention away from domestic football and onto the international stage.
Is there a quick fix however that exists to reignite a country’s love for mid-season international friendlies and qualifiers or have many of the great European footballing nations become so fixated on domestic league, cup and continental competitions that a preliminary group stage preceding a major tournament is consequently rendered meaningless?
With the vast quantities of money on offer for top flight domestic appearances and significant financial rewards on offer for numbers of goals scored, assists created and trophies won often now written into the contracts of many international stars, a growing trend of ‘injured’ players or even those who declare publicly before a long journey ahead with their national team that they themselves or the club would rather them remain at home with the best intentions of both in mind, again it’s the international game which has started to struggle more recently in attracting some of the game’s biggest players to swap representing a club for one weekend in favour of playing for their country. And whilst national team managers may feel like they’ve won the battle after luring their country’s biggest stars back to their own nation or perhaps even further afield for a crucial international game, the war has only just begun and expect this divide between balancing the demands of both club and country to only escalate in the next decade.
In a similar manner to the amount of time, money and effort that a domestic club’s fan base put into supporting their term, clearly when a club’s owner invests so much into a project only for its progress to be thwarted by numerous injuries to key players as a result of what may seem to them at least as a needless international friendly, there is some degree of empathy. Yet it must be remembered that footballers, despite their show of superhuman qualities on the pitch and the extraordinary things they are capable of week in week out, remain humans and will likely have a genuine desire to perhaps travel home to a familiar climate, cuisine, language and culture that they long for during an often chaotic league season competing in all fronts. As a brand the likes of Victor Wanyama or Pierre Erik Aubameyang may benefit their personal profile tenfold by becoming a star further afield and cracking the game at the highest level but maintaining an affiliation with your home country for those furthest away is vital; more than just putting a name to a nationality and instead an emblem of their country on the world stage, both domestically at club level and each time they step out in the national strip of their home country.
Friendlies may therefore not be friendly and an international qualifier can often render pointless for many countries already out of the reckoning of playing in an upcoming World Cup or European Championship but such games are more than just stepping stones to greater things on the pitch. In terms of unity and togetherness there are perhaps few better things in football than following your national team in a major tournament but all is lost as fans and television outlets reluctantly albeit temporarily part ways with the domestic calendar for one weekend. And all in all, for any of the home nations to progress you truly can’t help but think that if a happy medium can be reached together with the domestic and international calendars. A much warmer reception from fans of all league clubs as opposed to a begrudged acceptance at the gap in the league calendar would do wonders at international level – a togetherness and unity that the domestic and international game most certainly lack.