The Slow Death Of International Football
While early symptoms of World Cup fever are being displayed, today Football Cliches tells us that international football is already suffering from an advanced case of indifference.
Something tells me that international football isn't quite the pinnacle of the game these days. The feel-good factor of England's World Cup qualification was quickly overshadowed by a teacup-sized "racism storm" involving Roy Hodgson and a joke about 1960s US space-flight policy, which bookended the previous international break quite neatly with Jack Wilshere's brief brush with a cigarette.
It wouldn't require a NASA rocket scientist to deduce that the emotional investment of club allegiances outweighs that of many national sides, and England's shallow pool of world-class talent cannot hope to compete with the intergalactic Premier League. For better or worse, fans are now hooked on the volatile dynamic of the domestic game; a high turnover of managers and players ensures a rollercoaster narrative that international football cannot hope to match. Supporters of an elite, top-flight club can be assured of expensive new faces each summer (and again in January, if things are really exciting) but England's Lampard-Gerrard midfield conundrum is still being sardonically lampooned well into its second decade.
The weariness has apparently spread to the players. International retirements are commonplace, with those seemingly resigned to never competing in a major tournament weighing up the dubious rewards of playing for their country and risking a lucrative (or, at least, secure) club career. A cap is patently not what it once was - the Champions League and billion-pound domestic game has rendered the concept of "international level".
Indifference towards international friendlies, in particular, seems to have graduated to palpable irritation. Whether or not they have detected this, UEFA have nonetheless begun to seek an overhaul of the international calendar; a primarily financially-motivated move, naturally, following the recent centralisation of TV rights.
The Nations League
One notable proposal, which made a few headlines, is a "Nations League" concept, which would see the 54 member nations divided into nine divisions, with promotion and relegation.
While introducing a broadly competitive element to currently directionless friendlies, it may prove to be an unpopular idea with major nations who wish to play money-spinning global friendlies or genuinely experimental pre-tournament sharpeners. UEFA's weaker footballing nations, shorn of the revenue generated from playing the bigger fish outside of qualifying campaigns, might at least console themselves with the improvement potential of playing regular opposition nearer their level.
What this proposed league system arguably fails to solve is the perceived tedium of playing the same opposition - England's perennial tethering to Poland in qualifying campaigns, for example, almost seems to predate football itself. Meanwhile, our nation's staff writers have surely exhausted their original ideas for "10 Things You Probably Haven't Googled About Moldova" features.
Based on the latest FIFA rankings, the nine divisions would be composed thus:
Division 1 (how deliciously pre-1990s that sounds): Spain, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy.
Division 2: England, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia.
Division 3: Ukraine, France, Sweden, Denmark, Czech Republic, Serbia.
Division 4: Romania, Slovenia, Scotland, Armenia, Turkey, Hungary.
Division 5: Wales, Iceland, Norway, Austria, Montenegro, Albania.
Division 6: Republic of Ireland, Finland, Slovakia, Israel, Poland, Bulgaria.
Division 7: Belarus, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Moldova, Estonia.
Division 8: Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Kazakhstan.
Division 9: Malta, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar.
A galling realisation for England - that they no longer dine at the top table on their own continent - would serve as a welcome kick up the collective backside, but the lower two-thirds of that pyramid represent grim reading in the highly-relevant context of TV revenue.
The international footballing malaise, however, may not be restricted to the non-competitive fixtures. The World Cup and European Championships still thrive every other summer, but both have seen their prestige take a battering - the debacle of Qatar 2022 shows no sign of ending soon and the decision to disseminate the Euros in 2020 (supposedly only a one-off) has met with a lukewarm response. The bloated, 24-strong Euro 2016 will feature nearly half of UEFA's 54 members, prompting the governing body to look at various new options for a qualifying campaign which risks being, as Michel Platini himself put it, "less interesting". FIFA presidential hopeful Platini, meanwhile, is also trumpeting the unwieldy (but vote-winning) idea of a 40-team World Cup, starting with the 2018 tournament in Russia. Even for those who enjoy the televisual football jungle of a World Cup group stage, eight groups of five teams would positively reek of dead rubber.
Although "promotion-chasing England" has quite a ring to it, the long-established battle of club vs country is starting to look a little one-sided. International friendlies have traditionally begged the question "what have we learned?" - we may soon be asking if anyone even cares.
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