NO MATTER how well Gareth Southgate’s team performs and how much good progress was made in the 2018 World Cup, many football fans still find international break weekends tedious and an unwelcome distraction.
Southgate and his immediate predecessors got what England managers, going way back as far as Sir Alf Ramsey and Don Revie, wanted – a decent preparation period for important international matches. I would wager that club managers don’t warm to the international break for it disturbs momentum and, quite often, players come back injured or jaded after a long journey.
The media must also find it a chore. Regardless of how much they talk-up internationals, lower division games and women’s football, the absence of top level football is like a blank weekend for many people.
Way back in time, the debate of “club v country” was really built around player availability and the vain hope that clubs would prioritise the development of the national team. The idea of a break in domestic football was one of the many subjects that came to the fore when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. There has always been a desire to create an “England FC” as managers try to replicate the spirit of a club rather than a disparate group of players who get together every few months.
Today, supporters are embroiled in “club v country” as the passion that was once there for England among fans was a lot higher than it is today. Thirty years ago, a West Ham fan might say he also supported England, but today, it is all about the club. This is arguably a by-product of the Premier League era, the emphasis on supporter engagement, of myopic backing of “the club”. It doesn’t help that England’s fortunes have declined substantially in the past 15 years, although it may be that the tide has turned.
How much of the decline of international support is to do with the multi-national structure of top football is open to debate. While some may consider the all-star Premier League teams makes for exciting, cosmopolitan football, it also means that young talent is often stymied and national teams are less enticing than clubs that bring together expensive stars from all over the world.
Moreover, major qualifying competitions are hardly really appealing box-office fixtures, although you do get the occasional gem like Germany versus Netherlands. England v Kosovo will be a huge game for the latter, but for English fans, it is not Liverpool v Everton, or even Bournemouth v Burnley. The really interesting and compelling internationals only come in the competition proper and the larger these tournaments get, the more sub-standard games there will eventually be.
It doesn’t help that watching often pedestrian international football is very different from committed club football. Wembley, despite its expensive rebuild, still struggles to build an atmosphere – hence all the dreadful trimmings such as blasted music and pyrotechnics.
Football has become very club-centric because that’s where the money flows and because clubs work very hard on building global franchises. International events such as the World Cup and European Championship appear to be less about the football and more about the commercial “event” and the culture of “being there”. Thankfully, the 2018 World Cup restored some faith in an elite competition, despite all the misgivings about the hosts.
On the subject of 2018, England’s performance did a lot to build goodwill for the national team after a long period of apathy. But that goodwill could easily be lost if 2020 is a damp squib. We all know that giving England the chance to prepare properly is not an unreasonable request, but we still find the international break, especially in early season, a break in routine that we don’t really want. We have to grin and bear it and believe that it is all for the greater good.