A Friendly Way to Waste Our Time
Two years ago, discussing the problem of coping with the loss of essential players at Newcastle, Graeme Souness uttered the words that FIFA fear the most:
“International friendlies are a waste of time – full stop.”
That sentiment has been echoed many times over the years by many managers, and for a long time it seemed like a convenient excuse for managers with huge coffers to explain to the supporters why despite enormous investment in internationals, they still couldn’t get results. This year, Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez have taken opposite approaches to the question, abjectly negative and mutedly positive respectively, but one suspects their underlying sentiments remain exactly the same, and not dissimilar to that of “Chop” Suey.
The results of this latest round of scrimmages makes it hard to argue against them. It makes little sense that players who are scarcely fit enough to play 90 minutes for their club (who pay their wages we might add) are obliged to attend a call-up to their national teams, less than two months since the World Cup, for a meaningless pre-season friendly. This after the EPL season last year was shortened by a few days to meet FIFA’s special World Cup requirement of ending all league competitions a full 2 weeks prior to the World Cup. If FIFA are so concerned about over-burdening the players, then why have they allowed this nonsense to go forward?
Club vs Country
Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger made the club-versus-country row famous in England, by creating phantom injuries to reserve key players for important club matches, when their preparations were interrupted by meaningless international friendlies. Nolberto Solano was axed from Newcastle due in no small part to his insistence on playing for Peru. This after assuring Robson, then Souness, during contract negotiations at Newcastle that his days of playing for his national team were over.
Later Sven Goran-Eriksson, ever the wily weasel, made agreements with club managers to use his England stars sparingly to avoid over-exertion, which resulted in the even more absurd practice of unlimited substitions. He once replaced an entire team with the exception of the goal-keeper to keep his promise. Later when he (was convinced) he needed Wayne Rooney for England’s World Cup chances, he went back on his agreement with Man U to allow them to determine Rooney’s fitness and date of return to action following a broken foot sustained 6 weeks before the World Cup. Without concern for club retribution, since he was leaving the post, “Slick” Sven couldn’t have cared less about breaking his word. Nothing like sabotaging the next manager by going back on your word, eh Sven?
Today, the practice continues, but players going on suspension seems to have solved some of the problem, while the lack of intensity in these matches mitigates the risk of injury. It is that lack of intensity that makes the games all the more useless, but clubs still face stiff penalties if they refuse to allow a player called up for national team duty even for friendlies. The respective FAs make a pretty penny from these dressed up training sessions. Players want to play internationals; some for love of country, but most for love of money. The black hand of big transfer fee percentages awaits a run-of-the-mill player who can call himself an international when he's sold to another club, so they can't resist. The only ones that lose are the clubs who can lose a player to injury or fatigue, and the fans who are subjected to these "games".
Results? What Results?
But it’s the utter meaninglessness of these latest results that really opens the eyes to the absurdity of it all. All seems to be well for the McVenables era with a 4-0 drubbing of current European Champions Greece (boy that’s hard to say with a straight face). Given that the victory came in a half empty stadium at Old Trafford, it seems even before the match England fans were taking this game with more than a grain of salt. At the very least, McVenables showed the fallacy of their predecessor’s English galacticos policy, dropping Becks, and being forced into omitting (Joe) Cole, Rooney and Owen due to injury. But if anyone in England thinks this is some kind of harbinger of success, remember that England went to the World Cup with a 6-0 drubbing of Jamaica and promptly put on one of the worst performances in recent memory.
Goals from Terry, Lamps and a pair from the praying mantis Tim Crouch suggests that improvements have been made, but all it shows me is how foolish English hero-worship is and how bad Greece truly are (casting their miraculous victory, and their more illustrious competitors’ inexplicable failures in Portugal, in a whole new light). Aside from Frankie "Four Finger's" blooper-reel goal, which was clearly an own-goal, but was surely “adjusted” to boost the poor man’s confidence, the England goals were down as much to unbelievably poor defending, and a Greek team that was clearly there to pick up a nice pay check for their FA. But that's what you get when the money is guaranteed and nothing is at stake. And while this will no doubt lead to absurd expectations in England, what it ought to lead to is a re-examination of the value of these games.
Spain went all the way to Iceland to waste our time with a 0-0 ballet, highlighted by the shocking revelation that there are at least 12,000 people in Iceland dumb enough to pay money to watch this dog and pony show. The only news from this match was Raul's 100th match for Spain, and based on his performance, hopefully his last. Then again, if you haven't got comic/tragic drama in these games, then you haven't got anything. A free trip to the hot springs of Iceland, and a pay check for the Spanish and Icelandic FAs, yes, but as my father has always told me, “You can always make more money, but once you’ve wasted time, that’s gone forever.” Gone indeed. Does anyone for a second think that Iceland are the equals of Spain? Even Eidur Gudjohnsen couldn't bring himself to play in this game, and he probably could have gotten on the same plane that the Barcelona players did, but most of them had the good sense to avoid this farce.
Holland went all the way to Landsdowne Road to dress dow Ireland 4-0, billed as a grudge match for the Irish exclusion of the Dutch from Korea/Japan 2002, even though only 1 of the 22 men that started the match were even on the rosters at the time. And Dirk Kuyt has once again proven that the friendlies are meaningless because despite his abject inability to produce yesterday, he’s still on the verge of a 10 million pound transfer to Liverpool. Will he become their Ruud van Nistelrooy, or their Baudenwin Zen…wait a minute, they already have Zenden, so I guess that's their Jan Kronkamp...sorry, their Erik Meijer (anyone remember him?) Clearly the Liverpool staff have taken nothing away from this match, and we’ll be seeing Dirk “Diggler” Kuyt, smearing the Anfield cinema-plex with his 8mm game. True Ireland are a quality side, but without Robbie Keane or Shay Given, are we to take this game seriously?
But by far the most ridiculous result, is the 1-1 draw between Brazil and Norway. With a “new-look” side, that excluded the so-called “magic” quartet, the the press-stopping headline reads: “Norway Maintains Its Unbeaten Record Against Brazil”. Now this isn’t a women’s international headline, but the absurdity of it, and/or drawing any conclusions from it, serve as a reminder that in football, the only thing that counts is results in the current competition. Since there is no current competition, it follows that this result is meaningless. No doubt some Swiss bank accounts have been replenished following this highway robbery, but the real surprise is that, given Brazil’s abysmal performance at the World Cup with their “best” players, it would have made more sense if they crushed Norway with their reserves. But even they couldn’t bring themselves to take this more seriously than a pick-up game with shiny red and yellow pennys. If, say, Brazil and Norway played in the final match of the first round of the World Cup in 2010, and a place in the next round were at stake, does anyone think the vaunted Norwegians would maintain their "unbeaten" record? Please.
Do away with international friendlies altogether. That's right, just get rid of them. The schedule is already so congested, these games just pose a risk that an important player won’t be able to earn his wages for his club. That FIFA have reduced the weight of these games in their world rankings (and the fact that the rankings aren't used for World Cup seedings anyway) shows just how laughable is the manufactured meaning of these games. The argument against this is that managers need time to “experiment” prior to their Euro2008 qualifiers, but wouldn’t the games be more interesting if real players played with something at stake, without the physical burden of all these other meaningless games. Wouldn't that be a better basis for managers to judge their players? And if all the teams qualifying for Euro2008 didn’t play in these games, wouldn’t the effect be universal, so nobody would be unduly burdened?
There’s only one reason the show must go on, and it’s not so that the teams can “gel”, or to "vet" new talent, who are never used when it counts. They play these games to make some money for their FAs, which they promptly use to either buy vacation homes, promote themselves, or their football - probably in descending order of frequency. This may be good for youth teams within those FAs, or the women's game, but if that's the objective, then let’s really put something at stake. Then the value of these games, both sporting and monetary, would go through the roof.
Set aside a week in the summer of the off-year (2007) for a series of 1-week round robin charity competitions, the money coming from national team sponsors, of which there are plenty, with $10M going to the winner’s FA, to go directly to a fund managed by charities chosen by the players. That way the reason for the games is transparent (money) something is really at stake (money) the games have some bite, the FA’s save money on travel because they all go to one site for one-week only, and we don't waste our time watching these "River-Dance" exhibitions.
Another option would be to play only games that mean something. For example, CONCACAF, Asia and South America would have qualifers for the Gold Cup, Asian Cup of Nations and Copa America, each to be held every 2 years, but restricted to only the 4 teams that qualify, then have a 3 game round-robin, plus a final and a 4th place game. African nationals already do this, but that doesn't stop them from taking the money and running from these international friendlies either. Certainly the big money clubs in Europe, currently in love with young, cheap African talen would welcome the elimination of friendlies that take players who are exploited by their clubs, and exploit them for their FAs.
FIFA and UEFA will never accept this, of course, because they control the FA’s of the world through money, and so they need to offer the guarantee of these friendlies to ensure that the respective FA get their gratuities. Hence the stiff penalties for clubs refusing to allow players to attend. Frankly we’d all be better off if everybody took a little less money (clubs, players and FAs), and eliminated these games altogether. They use up players, they fail to deliver quality soccer, and they’re a big thorn in the side of club teams trying to prepare for their seasons.
Which, by the way, until the next real international competition comes around is all we really care about anyway.