International football and the September International break. Up and down the country, and even across the continent, there’s very few supporters for which those words carry any sort of excitement or anticipation. It drags the domestic club season back by the neck, just before it can build up enough momentum to escape from the grasp of seemingly meaningless friendlies and ever-increasing air miles, to accelerate on into the distance that is the autumn and the continuation of the league season.
You know what I love shortly after a World Cup? An international break ?
— Rahul Kohli (@RahulKohli13) September 3, 2018
The two-week hiatus from Premier League football, which will be a monthly affair from now until November, means that it will be the 15th of December before clubs will have played five league matches on the bounce. The first third of the season perennially feels dictated by these three breaks, grinding momentum to a halt both on-the-pitch and off it.
However, with all these things, it’s important not to have a set of lower-league blinkers on in this race to possible glory which comes to an end next May. The likes of League One and League Two will continue this weekend. But, while criticisms of how the current schedule affects Premier League teams may sound like just another brattish Mourinho-esque tantrum from those of us already lucky enough to be in some way involved in one of the greatest leagues in the world, the opposition to the current format is justified given the needless complications it adds.
There is an underlying question though. Some would even call it a concern. It sets the context for debate around a possible reformatting, and whether condemnation of the system is justified. Why do so many of us have such a disdain towards international football?
First of all, let me clarify what I mean by international football. While it’s obvious to everyone that summer-long tournaments such as the Euros and the World Cup are almost universally loved (or at least will be until they’re expanded to 48 teams), the bite-size international breaks such as the one we’re currently in are so far removed from the nostalgic romance that surrounded Russia 2018, for example. While at the World Cup, we watch stars from the rest of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia, international breaks are more focused on our own nations. The logistics and meaningfulness of watching Brazil and Argentina play each other in a preliminary group for a tournament they will no doubt both qualify for, makes it difficult for us to watch anyone outside of the home nations and the Republic of Ireland.
So why is there so little excitement in getting to see our home country play twice as an escape from the often-stressful club season? For years it seemed to be the lack of competitiveness. In the Premier League, every game before March has so much riding on it. Even come April, Sky will find a way of making Everton vs Burnley into a box office production.
The lack of competitiveness in friendlies is obvious. With them now being replaced in Europe for the most part with the brand spanking new UEFA Nations League, there may be some respite from the sorry affair of staying in and watching England host Spain on ITV, as Pepe Reina and Iago Aspas still manage to get a game for the visitors. But latest polls suggest there are approximately six people across all of Europe who understand how the Nations League works, and what it’s meant to do. Some reports say brain surgeons in Zurich might be close to a breakthrough in comprehending the purpose of the competition, but until then, most countries will probably just shrug their shoulders and treat it as meaningless. Rightly so.
This is the Nations League trophy. I have no idea how you win it pic.twitter.com/bAkYlRbZLS
— Scott Johnson (@roathboy) September 3, 2018
The traditional European qualifiers are a bit of an improvement, but they don’t even come close to replicating the ups and downs of the Premier League. A 13-month long campaign ultimately spits out the same names at the end of each cycle. Occasionally someone like the Netherlands or even England may miss out, but for the most part, the predictability of the games makes it harder to get stuck into as a fan. Giant killings are as rare as hens’ teeth, and the nature of the format means that more often than not, groups are focused on two sides going for a play-off spot behind a Spain or a Germany, while comfortably ahead of the San Marino’s and Liechtenstein’s of this world.
As an Irishman though, none of the above should matter. We generally qualify for one in every three tournaments, meaning that getting through to a World Cup or a European Championship is kind of a big deal over here, and rare enough to be celebrated rather than expected. We’re always there or thereabouts, good enough to be in the mix for a play-off spot heading into the last round of matches, and we have the quality to have a fairly even contest with pretty much anyone outside the five or six giants of European football. I’m probably in the minority when I say I’m not a huge fan of watching us play in the place of teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, United and the champions elect, Liverpool. While it meant a lot more to me when I was younger, I’ve lost some of my wide-eyed innocence towards the big bad footballing world that we live in.
It’s the band-wagoners. If you support a club, as 95% of you reading this will, you’re in there with people who are deeply invested in the cause. Because they have a choice. It’s hard to follow a football team. Unless you support Real Madrid, football has a funny way of quickly dealing you early blows to see if you can stick with the anguish and come out the other side with the same admiration for your club as you had coming into this endless fight. It’s why so many young fans tail off in their teens when they discover the lack of obligation to be disappointed in other pastimes, for example, sex.
You spend every minute with your club. Even in the summer, transfer chat and dreams of glory next season dominate your mind. You go to the trenches with them, you wouldn’t have it any other way. International football is much softer on us humans. You can pick it up and be a part of it for ten days before leaving it for another three months, only giving it the odd passing thought when you see the likes of Shane Long or Robbie Brady knicking a goal at club level. Even if you don’t watch football at all, you can still be a part of it. We’re not all born into a football club, but we’re all born with a nationality. If you’re Declan Rice you’re even lucky enough to be born with two.
Martin O'Neill: He (Declan Rice) is still deliberating. He is a young man. England have spoken to him. He is taking time to make his mind up. He has done brilliantly for us. I'm giving him a little bit of time. #COYBIG pic.twitter.com/jFvCzHmgY0
— FAIreland ⚽️?? (@FAIreland) August 27, 2018
There is also the sense of community. National identity can often bind people together, but I’d question whether that bond is as strong as the one between football fans of the same club. Whether it’s the regional similarities of a group of people from the same area supporting the local team, or people just growing to become more like one another when they spend so much time together partaking in an activity as communal as football. Countries tend to be big. Really big. So big in fact that there’s guaranteed to be a fair few people you don’t like in there somewhere. A fair few people you can’t bear. Whether it be what they stand for politically, the fact that they support your club’s main rivals, or even the way in which they support the national team. The latter is a huge part of why the cities of Liverpool and Manchester are so blasé towards England.
People are free to support who they like, and support at an intensity that they feel is right. If you want to watch Ireland play Wales on Thursday even though you haven’t watched a football match since the World Cup final, then that’s no problem at all. Just don’t call me unpatriotic because I don’t want to do the Iceland clap in Landsdowne Road.
Oh, and it’s a Nations League game, so best of luck figuring out what happens if Ireland win.
All the best.