Most team sports can be broadly classified under two categories- One where the emphasis is on the international stage. Representing the country is the main focus of players and if they’re deemed worthy, most of the year is spent with the national team be it at home or overseas. The other category is one which football finds itself in. Here the players train almost throughout the year with their respective clubs and if rewarded with a call-up, from time to time with the national team set up. Players are like errant partners in a relationship. They may be susceptible to a few flings, but at the end of the day, they will go home. It may be pushing the boundaries of imagination but the comparison of International football to a mistress as opposed to club football, the wife seems bizarrely apt.
Anyway in this debate, two of us will give differing opinions on the importance of International friendlies, bearing the following key points in mind:
- Importance of International friendlies
- Timing of International breaks
- Player priority- Employer vs Country
- Cash generation
At first look, International friendlies may look like a pointless exercise. If you’re a good team it means that players who are called up have to travel at times half way around the world and back, all for what is essentially a non competitive fixture. But I put it to you that, from the international team’s point of view, friendlies are far from of a meaningless exercise. In fact they are the complete opposite. Why? Well, for starters the stop start nature of the international game. Football at an International level plays second fiddle to club level. So friendlies not only provide International teams with opportunities to train together but also to play as a team. Variety of tactics can be tried by the think tank and in general much-needed time is devoted towards the progress of the team. Variety also extends to the personnel deployed. The talent pool for any nation is vast and therefore picking a squad in itself is a hard job. From that squad picking a starting XI when you haven’t watched them play together is an unenviable task. Competitive qualifiers and tournaments are no place for experimentation and with limited training opportunities, friendlies are the only platform where the personnel can be tinkered with and a few of the fringe players knocking on the door have an opportunity to barge into the team. Friendlies are also used in build up to tournaments. Often in the build up to a tournament, teams pick and choose their opponents whose style of play is similar to say a team that are in the same group.
A major bone of contention between clubs and countries are the timing of International breaks. I’ll be the first to agree that the timing of a few breaks are far from ideal. The break at the start of this season was a perfect example. After the Euros in the summer, a club’s stars had to turn up for their national teams right at the start of the season. Scheduling that didn’t leave too many clubs jumping up and down with joy. But then what is an ideal time? With so many games being played in club football, especially in the case of the top teams, clubs wouldn’t be happy with any International break, whenever it occurs. Put simply there is no ideal time for an International break.
Moving on to the players themselves, there is the age-old debate of club vs country. A player is an employee of the club. He is bound by a contract and regardless of how much the pay is or other such things, at the end of the day it is still a job. But on the other hand, representing the country of your birth should be equally important. This may sound a little clichéd but few things are more capable of uniting a vast percentage of a country’s population than sport. For most players, wearing the national jersey is the holy grail and call me old-fashioned but that idea appeals to me. Yes, players are susceptible to injury during international breaks but a system of compensation is already in place and the flip side of an International team missing out on a high-profile player due to his club commitments is in fact more likely to happen.
The prestige friendlies that are scheduled at various times of the year pit the best international teams against each other, and by extension, the best players in the world against each other. This means that in the midst of some extremely important competitions like the UEFA Champions League, or the respective national leagues, players are forced to go and take part in what is essentially a worthless game, at least in terms of ramifications for tournaments. If there were no such breaks for friendlies, the already overworked footballer wouldn’t have to go through the extra trouble of playing a game that isn’t really beneficial for him, his club, or his country. Also, such friendlies, especially the recently concluded ones, featured games like England vs Brazil, Holland vs Italy, and Germany vs France. We usually get to see teams of this magnitude clash with each other in the latter stages of competitions like the World Cup or the Euros. Having them clash this often reduces the sheen on such iconic clashes when they really do matter.
Most such friendlies come in the middle of a jam-packed season. The two most common timings for such friendlies are at the beginning of the season and at the crucial junctures towards the end of the season. This is highly disruptive in a team’s progress. At the beginning of the season, a team is bonding and beginning to get into rhythm. New signings are bedding in, settling down. an international break at this point adversely affects the informal bonding processes that go on behind the scenes in the team’s dressing room. Apart from this, the fact that most such friendlies are mid-week games, sandwiched by league or cup-ties over the weekend adds to the workload of the players. Such unwelcome, and virtually worthless assignments (not to mention travels across the globe) can only be harmful to players in the long run, leading to burnout.
In the modern climate, national boundaries are dissolving, with professionals choosing to work in and for the organization that can maximize the welfare. The same applies to footballers. Like all of us, a footballer would much rather play for, and give effort to a team that has his best interests in mind. With the amount of adoration, and if baser virtues may be considered, money, players receive at their respective clubs, it’s no secret that players would much rather train for the upcoming league fixture than travel half way across the globe to play a meaningless friendly.
Secondly, at clubs, players, especially the performing stars, receive the undying love and affection of their fans. However, while playing for their national teams, they face severe criticism, even from their own fans, leading to an uncomfortable experience. Just ask Lionel Messi. As professional footballers, they’re expected to be able to deal with a fair amount of flak that comes their way, but a good look at our own mentality, and an examination of our own reactions will reveal that this is something easier said than done.
It’s a fact that clashes between the best teams in the world will draw large audiences to stadiums, and help football associations fill their coffers. The general assumption is that the money generated is used for good purposes like grass roots development, academy building and coaching. If this is true, it is a truly fantastic use of the players’ and organizers’ time and energy. However, all of us know better than to believe the hype and lovely promises our institutions make to us. Add to this the current climate of suspicion, with investigations about allegations as serious as match fixing, and one can only wonder what use the revenue generated is put to by FIFA and the other governing bodies.