Theoretically, international soccer is the absolute pinnacle of any player’s career — proudly representing your homeland, fighting tooth and nail to get a result against other teams with comparable national pride. The thought of representing your nation at a major finals should fill your very being with immense gratification, and give any individual excitement jitters of the like you would expect from a four year old visiting Santa’s grotto.
Realistically, even the most partisan nationalist could not argue that this is the case. Former Arsenal and France midfield dynamo Patrick Vieira had this to say recently: “When I grew up, I wanted to play for the French national team. That was my target, my dream, and I don’t think this is the same for the Under 16s and Under 18s in England. I don’t think the young players are dreaming of playing for the national team anymore. I believe they are not as proud as they used to be”.
Ignoring the fact that Vieira has evolved into an overly opinionated footballing rent-a-quote, this is interesting, though maybe not surprising.
Vieira is not long retired. Despite this, he was brought up in an era of football when playing for your national team was the absolute pinnacle of achievement. The World Cup finals were the main event, the crème de la crème, the highest of highs or the lowest of lows depending upon your performance. It was the top level of football on the planet by a country mile. When the game of football first registered in my own psyche, the year was 1990. My earliest football memories were of World Cup Italia ’90: Gazza’s tears (and disturbing fake boobs), Lineker’s rifled equaliser in the same game against the loathsome West Germany team, Roger Milla’s dad-dancing and Diego Maradona’s brilliance. Compared to watching the early stages of the Rumbelow’s Cup the following season, there was no contest. It was a massive come down until Euro ’92 and USA ’94 rolled into my consciousness.
In hindsight, I can make some sense of this. The English Premier League commenced in August 1992. On the opening weekend of fixtures, there were 13 non-UK players. To add further perspective, one of those players was Ronnie Rosenthal.
International soccer was a window beyond the honest work rate of, with all due respect, Kevin Richardson, Carlton Palmer and Geoff Thomas. It was a chance to see, forgive me for getting sentimental, proper footballers who had the effortless ability to entertain, like Ruud ‘sexy football’ Gullit, Roberto Baggio and Romario.
Fast forward to the present. Last season in England’s Premier League, of the 522 players who took to the field during the season, only 212 were English. Amongst the non-English contingent of the league, there were 68 different nationalities. Manchester United have the highest rates of worldwide revenue compared to any other club in the world. Chelsea and Manchester City are respectively bankrolled by the unfathomably wealthy Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour. A Sky Sports subscription gives us access to these English-based dream teams, featuring the elite players of world football. If that isn’t enough for you, watch the Spanish Primera Liga. Barcelona and Real Madrid have assembled a fairly decent mix of the world’s best players.
The Champions League is, in the opinion of any sane person, the highest level of football available for the viewing pleasure of your average casual viewer. Teams with bottomless budgets are unrestricted by petty issues like player nationality. They can buy the best from anywhere in the globe. South Americans are now as commonly found in Torquay as they are in Santiago or Caracas.
Consequently, the average football fan greets the prospect of an impending international week as if it were a trip to the dentist. The qualifying campaign for the World Cup 2014 is like a great big week-long collective groan. Fans just want to get through it to get to the next round of their club’s fixtures – games they actually care about. Why would we want to watch England versus San Marino? So many games are not even a legitimate contest. You can pick the teams that are going to qualify from a group before it’s even started, it’s just a question of how much they win it by.
So, has international football passed its sell-by date? In my opinion, it has not. However, I must qualify that opinion. It needs a revamp. There is no issue with the finals of the big tournaments – the World Cup and the European Championship. History and prestige ensures that, even if they do not provide the highest standard of football, they are still the highest accolades in the sport. I wasn’t alive in 1982, but I can only imagine the impact Espana 82 had on my province of Northern Ireland when we rode on the crest of a wave and beat the Spanish hosts before honourable defeat in the second phase. No one can tell me international football is a waste of time after those glorious nights beating the ‘Golden Generation’ of English players at Windsor Park in 2005, followed by World champions elect Spain during the halcyon days of Lawrie Sanchez. Most recently, pride was restored in the national jersey by putting one Cristiano Ronaldo in his place on the night of his 100th cap, limiting the Portuguese to a single point in Porto.
These nights are few and far between. Pre-qualifiers for the smaller nations of Europe are surely a must in order to make the qualifying stages more compelling and more competitive. Let the weaker nations play amongst themselves if they are not at a level to compete with the big boys. By winning a few games against their level rivals, they could grow into a competitive footballing nation. Maybe then we could generate some qualifying games that people actually want to watch, and that players actually care about playing in. It’s very hard for a fan to care when they know that the average player is looking forward to getting back to their club and playing ‘proper’ football at the weekend.
I don’t want to come across as negative and cynical. International football can be excellent, as good as football gets. Players can have the best moments of their career playing for their national teams. But please, change the current qualifying system. Football has moved on, international football needs to move with it. Top nations need to play other top nations. Maybe then, the players would actually care, and fans may even look forward to the international break.