This week sees the return of the beloved international friendly. Club managers use the opportunity to blame their own failings on the disruption caused by International matches, while national managers have to put up with a never ending list of withdrawals. As a result we usually get a disjointed kick about masquerading as a football match, though Liverpool fans may be hard pressed to spot the difference.
I have yet to come across anyone who thinks international friendlies are beneficial. National managers know that little can be gleaned from single matches particularly if they are accompanied by wholesale withdrawals but they offer an opportunity to try tactics/players outside of serious competitive matches. Also without friendlies national managers could go five or six months without doing any actual work. And that would make it hard to justify the seven figure salary. The problem, though, is not the friendly matches but rather the structure of the whole football calendar itself.
What football needs is a radical solution, or for those followers of Rugby Union a pretty simple one – creating international blocks during the football season. Rugby Union has for several years created blocks whereby international fixtures can be held. Now the football calendar is rather more complex than Rugby Union & unlike its oval ball rival is dominated by clubs. However the principle is a good one & can be modified to work for football. And crucially the benefits will apply to both national associations & clubs.
The set up is simple. All International fixtures must fit into three blocks throughout the year. One of these blocks is the traditional summer slot that is used for major international tournaments. The other two however will be a three week window during the season. A maximum of 6 games can be played during this period but there must be at least 4 days between the last fixture & the next scheduled club matches. Players will be released on the Monday following weekend fixtures & will return to their clubs on the Wednesday before club matches. The international window will be in November & February. In both cases the first fixture will fall on the first Saturday of the month. Players will be on international duty for 23 days during each window and in total 46 days during the season. At present international commitments mean players are called up for 43 days throughout the season so logistically we are not talking about a great deal of difference.
Creating the space in the football calendar would not seem therefore to be an issue and the benefits for all parties would be significant. Firstly it would increase the profile of the international game, with each window almost acting as a mini tournament. With the increased training & preparation time coaches will have greater opportunity to create more cohesive teams. Trying out new tactics & formations will be more effective knowing that players called up will be available for several fixtures. It is surely no coincidence that international matches during major tournaments are more flowing and entertaining affairs than standalone the qualifying matches.
And the benefits are not just limited to the national teams. Club managers will have plenty to be pleased with in the new system. First & foremost there will less disruption to the season. Instead of losing players to international fixtures during six windows throughout the season they will only be two such occasions. In particular dates that were most problematic such as the mid-August or the early April fixtures will be gone. By grouping fixtures together player travel should decrease, which is an obvious problem for South American players who ply their trade in Europe. Another major gripe of club managers is that players come back injured as national managers do not take into account longer term implications of playing an injured player. Now this will not be eradicated under the new calendar but it will mean that national managers will have to weigh up injury doubts as the players will be with them for around three weeks. Therefore risking a player in the first or second international could mean he is unavailable for the remaining games in the international window. The key point is that the increased time spent with the national team places greater emphasis on ensuring the welfare of injured players.
Major international tournaments such as the African Nations, which does not currently fall into the summer gap, can now be held during one of these windows. And with the growing number of African players at Europe’s top clubs this is becoming more & more of an issue.
With top flight teams not in action there will be a greater exposure for lower league teams. Attendances for such teams may well go up as fans chose to visit their local clubs in absence of their usual Saturday pilgrimage. In addition after each international break their will be an added anticipation for the return of the Premier League.
The benefits are plentiful but there will be downsides to these changes. The international breaks will disrupt the flow of the season. It will particularly impact the Champions League, which has become a central part of the season. And no doubt making these changes will take time to implement.
However the trade off for any issues as a result of these changes is substantial. A streamlined & coherent calendar will benefit players, clubs, national teams & fans. A stronger international game can only be a good thing for world football, while club football will enjoy greater stability as a result of reduced disruption. There is much to approve in this plan but more than that it is sensible solution to a growing problem for world football. With the growing power of the major clubs sides the issue of international’s has become central to football’s future. Will national sides soon have to pay club sides for calling up players? Football needs to look into the issue in sensible & timely manner before it leads to a major schism.