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Why International Soccer Needs a Revamp To Stay Relevant

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.

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  1. CTBlues

    March 28, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I think one of the things that hurt international soccer was the break up of countries like Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovakia. Honestly I think having some countries playing as a region could help. Have the Scandinavian countries as one team, have the Great Britain actually play as Great Britain, have Czech Republic and Slovakia together again, I don’t think you could ever have the Yugo team again for obvious reasons, Poland and Belarus, Austria and Hungry could be buddies again. The Caribbean islands one team, the Central American teams minus Mexico one team.

    • Latics Fan

      March 28, 2013 at 12:25 pm

      Never going to happen.

      • CTBlues

        March 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm

        I don’t understand stand why it can’t happen it already happens with other sports like in cricket the Caribbean nations play as the west indies, in the Olympics Great Britain participates as Great Britain there is no reason they shouldn’t in soccer, Northern Ireland and Ireland play together in rugby, Wales plays with England in cricket. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. You can still have rivalries within your group members. Imagine if there was a team GB in international soccer but then they had a game/tournament similar to Australia’s State of Origin series between Queensland and New South Wales does in rugby. You could bring back the Commonwealth Cup in Great Britain.

  2. Mufc77

    March 28, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I’m going to give you a thumbs up just for mentioning Windsor park on EPL talk. My last experience at that ground as a 15 year old was memorable.

  3. Brn442

    March 28, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Hmm, good points, I wish the writer would elaborate more on a “top” nation vs a “home” one.

    But seriously, I’ve always thought that nations who do well in the European Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup – perhaps the quarter, semi, finalists, should be given a bye into the following World Cup, via their Confederation, thus lowering the number of qualifying matches, played by the rest of other nations.

    The only problem is, with international breaks, already qualified nations will schedule meaningless friendlies anyway. The same would happen when the so-called minnows are playing pre-qualifiers.

    • Latics Fan

      March 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      Actually, things have moved in the opposite direction. Used to be the winner of the World Cup automatically qualified for the next one. Now they have to qualify along with everyone else – only the host qualifies automatically.

      • brn442

        March 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm

        Never made any sense. FIFA supposedly wanted to free up another space to a country less worthy than the defending champions?

        It’s also a shame, that unlike Brazil 1970, the next country to win the current cup 3 times, may not be allowed to keep it.

  4. Muley555

    March 28, 2013 at 12:48 am

    Here is an intentionally extreme recommendation for UEFA qualifying based on the objective to remove internationals from the domestic season and add preliminary qualifiers.

    – First round would take place in the summer 2 years before the World Cup and include the 29 countries who did not qualify for the Euros (for 12 second round spots)
    – All teams who qualified for the Euro tournament would get a bye in the first round (24 teams)

    – Second round would take place during the summer 1 year before the World Cup with 36 teams in groups of 4. Just like now, the top 9 teams get auto qualification and the best runners up make the playoffs for the other 4 spots.

    – Playoff round would occur in the fall of the year before the World Cup and be back to back games which require just one international break

    So this type of approach would eliminate all qualifiers (except the playoffs) from the domestic campaigns. Hence, the domestic seasons could start later and finish earlier while saving players travel and wasting weekends for the domestic leagues.

  5. NashRambler

    March 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    I’m guessing you are assuming the reader would understand you are criticizing the European world cup qualification process. Every continent of course has a different format.

    What you are advocating for Europe was adopted by Concacaf for the 2014 qualification tournament in that the top 6 teams according to the FIFA world rankings entered the tournament in the third round.

  6. Lon

    March 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Judging by last night’s game tv ratings, and press coverage, Id say international footy is pretty relevant. Way more relevant than club football, if ratings matters to you.

    • The Gaffer

      March 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      International soccer is more popular in North America than club soccer. The opposite is true in Europe.

      The Gaffer

      • Lon

        March 27, 2013 at 9:02 pm

        I doubt that is true. England’s Euro 2012 knockout game was the most watched football match in England last year. England games consistently out perform club matches in the ratings.That’s also true for France, Germany, Russia and most European countries.

        • The Gaffer

          March 27, 2013 at 11:16 pm

          I’m not talking about ratings specifically. Club soccer is more popular than international soccer in Europe except during big tournaments such as Euro 2012 and World Cup 2010.

          The Gaffer

          • listad

            March 28, 2013 at 11:34 am

            International soccer = Euros and World cups + their qualifying matches. Other than a few and far between friendlies, that’s all there is to “international soccer” in Europe. So saying ” Club soccer is more popular than international soccer in Europe except during big tournaments such as Euro 2012 and World Cup 2010.” is as perplexing as saying ” In Europe, spring temperatures are much more colder than winter temperatures, except…during november, december and january”. As a european living in Europe i can tell you firsthand that international soccer is more popular than club soccer by several orders of magnitude. It’s not even close. And yes, vastly superior TV ratings (for matches involving the national teams) are one of the obvious indicators that do show that for those who don’t live there. Ratings are, after all, one of the more common ways to measure popularity.

            • The Gaffer

              March 28, 2013 at 11:53 am

              It’s an interesting but complex topic. With international soccer, you get people who aren’t soccer fans but will support their nation (by watching their country play on television) during big tournaments. With leagues, you get more of the hardcore fans watching the sport throughout the entire year instead of every other summer.

              I would argue that the Premier League is more popular than the England national team.

              The Gaffer

  7. Tony Butterworth

    March 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I wrote an article suggesting alternative qualification methods earlier in the season so I completely agree.

    In many ways I like watching international games since I don’t care as much and can enjoy them more without the stress factor, but they often seem so irrelevant.

    My preference would be to cut down the games and hold them in “mini” tournaments during the summers between major comps. If you have prequalifying then you could have a set of 3 or 4 team groups play each other over 2 weeks at the end of may, beginning of June during the odd years. Still room for a couple of friendlies during the season.

  8. Fergus

    March 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Lon, don’t mince your words! I think you’ve misinterpreted the article. There are a couple of points I wanted to get across:
    1. Club football has overtaken international football in terms of quality because the fabulously wealthy clubs can buy any top player from anywhere in the world. That us a relatively new development over the last 20 years. International football used to be by far the highest level of football you could watch, but that simply isn’t the case any more.
    2. The pride and passion of fans like yourself mean international football will never die. However, in Europe, the qualification process is filled with dull games that the players just want to get out of the way and get back to their club, or they pull out of the squad ‘injured’. I would like to see qualification tiered so top nations are more likely to play eachother, and smaller nations can develop until they are at a level to genuinely compete

  9. Lon

    March 27, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    What is the point of this article? It is filled with mindless drivel. If you don’t like internationals, that is your personal opinion, but there are billions of people around the world that clamor for International footy. If you call yourself a football fan then you’d have no trouble taking a break from your precious EPL to watch great football from around the world. From Africa to South America, stadiums and couches were filled with passionate fans. I don’t think you know the meaning of relevant.

    • Guy

      March 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Of course this was an opinion piece. I believe the author made that perfectly clear. However, I think he has plenty of company in his feelings. You seldom see any “Hallelujah!” quotes when the breaks come around.

      Personally, I prefer a trip to the dentist over an international break…although I realize both are necessary. 😉

  10. Mike Mcguinness

    March 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    International footy can change,and have as much revamp as they want,but i will never ever care about international footy no matter how well england etc do as to me supporting england is like supporting a rival team wanting them to win-feel 100% nothing and always hope my players like lots of fans do that they dont get injured on international duty,as i only care about my own team and i think certain players are now comming around to that idea as well as the club is more important than international’s or defo 100% certain international games anyway

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