GIVE INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL A BREAK
For many, the international break is seen as something of a hindrance. An unwanted, enforced break from the exhilarating standard of club football being played across the continent, in which, especially when it is the turn of European Qualifiers, matches are played with a mundane intensity and a frequent gulf in class.
And you’d be right, if you watch the more ‘mainstream’ matches. Tune into Spain vs Faroe Islands, Belgium vs San Marino, or Italy vs Finland, and you’ll get an encounter that matches the description above. One side, boasting evident prowess and a sense of superiority, against a minnow, happy to play backs-to-the-wall football and hope that the scoreline doesn’t embarrass them by the time ninety minutes of gruelling defending has passed them by.
But, head down the beaten track to some of the less publicised matches, and you’ll find bundles of under-appreciated teams, who’s opportunity to qualify for a major tournament is not seen as an automatic right like it is here in England, but instead, is a nationwide dream. An obsession. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that fills out stadiums and sends an entire, starry-eyed, football-loving population, into overdrive.
Take Kosovo, England’s most recent opponents . Before the game, the nation who only gained recognition from FIFA to play international football in 2016, boasted the longest unbeaten run in European national football until that 5-3 defeat at St Mary’s. And for the country itself, which has only existed formally since 2008, to already be capable of scoring three goals against a superpower like England, is nothing short of remarkable. They are vying with Czech Republic to genuinely challenge England for qualification in Group A, which if they achieve it, will surely go down as one of the greatest footballing fairytales ever to have taken place on the international stage.
Elsewhere, in Group J, Armenia and Finland are fascinatingly neck-and-neck in a similar situation, vying with Italy for top spot. Two unlikely contenders, genuine underdogs, who have already stunned Bosnia & Herzegovina and Greece, sides who have plenty of pedigree on this stage let’s not forget, for whom an opportunity to line up at Euro 2020 would mean just about everything. Just look at Iceland’s heroics at Euro 2016 for what qualification for a major tournament can do for a small nation’s footballing status.
And if you look even further abroad, every single qualifier played between African teams is free to stream on FIFA’s website. And for those amongst you that are as big of an AFCON fan as I am, this should really appeal you. The sheer madness of African international football, the rhythmic passion, the frantic intensity, completely cost-free. If you want entertainment from your international break, you just have to look harder for it.
Furthermore, you shouldn’t tar all of international football with the same brush. The Nations League has been a resounding success in my opinion, replacing dreary friendlies with highly competitive encounters, between sides of almost identical ability. It is a competition that will only grow in both popularity and in how important it is perceived to be, but the inaugural showcase was very positive indeed.
So, to conclude, I can fully understand people’s hesitations with international football. The small proportion of it that is provided to us by the mainstream channels perfectly explains such complaints, but we have an underlying arrogance – a bias toward the highest calibre of football – in this country, which has prevented us from seeing the true beauty of international football, in countries where it really matters. So, next time that club football does cease, and we see our respective nations take to the field once again, delve a little deeper into our beautiful game. Broaden your footballing horizons.
Who knows? You might just love it as much as I do.