Do We Ask Too Much Of Our International Sides?

Yesterday, I asked the question of implementing live video review in football. Today’s question is: are our expectations too high for international football? I enjoyed your responses to yesterday’s article. Please weigh in with your feelings on international football in the comment section below.

It is easy to hold one’s international side to an unfair ideal. On the international scene we want to see the same quality and resolve of the most successful league sides. And why not? A country’s top players are called up and collected, pulled from their various posts in the world to come together and represent their country as the best and brightest in footballing talent. Why shouldn’t England, the Netherlands and Spain have the same success, the same overstuffed trophy cabinets of Manchester United, AFC Ajax and Real Madrid?

These three countries have long been strong figures on the world stage and they’ve fielded some of the world’s best players. But success has often been elusive.

England have boasted the quality of Beckham, Shilton, Lineker, Owen, Barnes, Gascoigne, Shearer, Keegan, etc, yet they haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. They’ve never won the Euro. Doubly frustrating since England was the birthplace of the game as we know it today.

The Netherlands gave us Total Football (cue heavenly music). They seduced the world with Cruyff’s flowing grace and bottomless imagination, and his heirs—the likes of van Basten, Kluivert, Bergkamp, van Nistelrooy, Robben—have carried his ideals onward. Today, they have some of the best attacking players in the world. They won the Euro in 1988, but they’ve never won the World Cup.

These are two of the most confounding examples. But any national team can struggle to live up to the quality of the sum of its parts. Reigning World Cup champs Italy, have stumbled since 2006. They still burst with quality. But age has compromised their vitality. They had to sneak into Euro 2008 before bowing out to Spain on penalty kicks. They didn’t make it from the group stage of the Confederations Cup, losing to both Brazil and Egypt.

Spain may be the best team in the world now, but pre-2008 they were famous for promising starts before getting knocked out by the quarter-finals in the Euro and World Cup alike.

One problem is the international side can never build the deep chemistry of the top league club. They simply don’t have the time. Practices are limited and matches are squeezed into the gaps in league campaigns. If the league side is a player’s day job, his national team is the regional conference. He meets up with the top men from the other top companies, but how much can they really get done when they don’t work together every week? They practice when they can. They play friendlies to hone that competitive edge. But all the while the team is changing shape as different players hit their stride at the day job (or get injured onsite) the call-ups shift and the face of the team changes greatly in a short amount of time. Meanwhile the national manager haggles with league managers over who he can have, who he should rest, who he should sub off in the 60th minute. How does he get anything done with such parameters?

The other big issue is context. There is a huge disparity between the nature of league and international campaigns. A winning league club gets to bury the odd loss in a heap of good results in a long season. But since major international campaigns are built on group stages and knock-out fixtures, the best national team can be derailed by a loss or two. Spain tied Brazil’s 35-match unbeaten streak, but one loss to the US yesterday saw them knocked from the Confederations Cup. Similarly, the Dutch had an unbelievable record in the qualifying and group stages of the Euro, but Russia knocked them out 3-1 in the quarter-finals.

Ultimately, success on the international stage is built atop a foundation of skill and depth. But in the end what it really takes to capture the big prizes is a bit of magic. Spain are not the best team in the world because their players are better than Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Robben, Sneijder, van der Vaart, etc.. These are all world-class players as well. No, what pushed Spain over the edge into greatest team-dom was that they found that necessary spark at all the right times.  From Iker Casillas’s gravity defying saves to that instant when Torres broke through and broke German hearts with his single goal, Spain had enough magic moments to transform international side into club team. If you’d told me they played together everyday, I would have believed it in the summer of 2008. They started a fire that kept them going for 35 unbeaten matches. Despite loss to the US, they may well be able to keep the thing lit through 2010.

Overall, I think we set the bar of expectation higher than most international sides can handle. Given the circumstances working against them. But we are not about to lower it. We’d rather wait, praying our side can someday vault over our soaring  hopes.

Spain once made up the Triumvirate of Fruitless Promise along with England and the Dutch. But in 2008 they finally broke through to find success. The Three Lions and the Oranje will just have to keep trying and waiting for their own spark to flare up. That intersection where all the elements of skill, drive and luck come together at once. The miraculous goal goes in. The belief-defying save is made. That small bit of magic lifts the side at the perfect moment to see them sprint along the thin margin of error and claim all the glory.

Of course, as an American, I’m just hoping the USA can lose more beautifully to Brazil in the final on Sunday—barring a South African upset today, which I’d take—than they did in the group stage. If they want to defy belief agian that’s fine too. But I’m not sure how many miracles they’ll be allowed in one competition.

Now that I’ve gotten started on the Dutch, my thinking wanders to the influence Ajax and the Oranje had in the 1970s (and beyond). Tomorrow’s question: What Does The Dream of Total Football Mean Today?


  1. Carl June 25, 2009
  2. Thomas June 25, 2009
  3. Floridascouse June 26, 2009
  4. Ethan Armstrong June 26, 2009
  5. Kartik Krishnaiyer June 26, 2009
  6. Thomas June 26, 2009
  7. Lyle June 27, 2009

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