By Phil Gregory
Talking to my mate Mark during England’s match against Italy, we both found it baffling that a team such as Ireland played ten games over two years for the chance to come to the Euros and play three group matches before being sent packing. It got me thinking about a way of making international football much better, for both national team coaches and domestic managers.
First of all, as Arsenal fans we all know how annoying it is when the Arsenal action is broken up by a two week international break. Speaking personally, I can’t get into the internationals, as during the season I’m fully focused on my club. Going to watch internationals is at the back of my mind, as I’m already budgeting to see my beloved Arsenal, so England are way down the list of priorities.
What would be much better is condensing the international action into a single period each year, an “international season” so to speak. Despite England’s many failings, I’ve really enjoyed watching the matches at the Euros and it’s because it is a quality competition with strong sides and a regular fixture list. If this could be replicated and done instead of constant mid-season internationals it’d work much better.
Looking at the season ahead, from the moment pre-season begins to the end of the season in May, I’ve counted two friendlies and five international friendlies, though this varies between sides. For the sake of argument, I think these figures are pretty reasonable to go off. That’s seven games, so if you are generous and play games Saturday/Sunday and Tuesday/Weds (or any combination thereof) international football – tournaments aside – only has to last three and a half weeks if played start to finish. Start the first week’s fixtures on the midweek to allow coaches the beginning of the week for training, and you could have a solid block of four weeks for international football every season. I’d do it at the end of the domestic season (which would be shorter due to the lack of international dates throughout).
Travelling would be greatly reduced as instead of having to jet to Mexico for multiple international dates over the season, all home games for that year would be done in a single trip, though there would still be aways. I imagine that the reduced travel would be pretty popular with domestic managers, and international gaffers would be much happier with a lengthy, continuous period of time to work with their squads and evaluate the players.
What you could also do however, is reduce the number of international matches, to eliminate hopeless mismatches and slightly reduce the number of dates on the calender. Take the recent Euros: fully half of the teams were eliminated after the group stage, so fully half of the sides played a stack of games over two years for the right to play THREE games in Poland./Ukraine. That seems ludicrous to me: the current qualifying round is simply a “first group stage”, with the Euros’ current group stage a “second” group stage before the serious business of the knockouts gets under way.
Clearly, the current “first group stage” (qualifiers) is uncompetitive: Ireland got absolutely smashed at the Euros yet came second in their qualifying group, with Andorra not managing a single win and Macedonia picking up eight points from ten games. Much more sensible would be to have pre-qualifying tournaments for the minnow nations (decided by UEFA coefficient or whatnot) and the winner/top three in a league or the like get put into the main qualifiers. Doing this, you could slim groups down to four teams and have genuinely interesting, competitive groups (as we had in the 16 team Euros) that could be played in a single “international season” at the end of the domestic calender. In reality however, timetabling that would be awkward – you’d either have all your qualifiers in June before a July tournament, or you’d have teams finishing say the Euros and then, without any internationals, going straight into World Cups qualifiers.
Clearly then, practicality suggests that you won’t be able to do the qualifiers in a single “international season”. The best solution then would to spread them over two, have them scheduled for the second half of the international season for that season, with national FA’s having the right to organise mini tournaments or friendlies to warm up for the qualifiers.
While the solution is not quite as tidy as I originally hoped (I wanted qualifers done in a single season for consistency) but the reduction of player travelling time and the benefit of an unbroken domestic season plus a month for international coaches to work with their players per season… it would definitely offset any impact the lower number of qualifiers has in terms of match practice and revenue. Voila: less unnecessary games, and minnow nations will benefit from competing amongst themselves for the opportunity to play with the bigger nations rather than being consistently demolished in the qualifying groups by the major nations. They’d lose the revenue that those games would bring, so some element of international revenue sharing would be required in order to compensate them for this loss but I can’t imagine it’d be a big ask for the major nations.
It wouldn’t surprise me if mini-tournaments e.g. the “Scandinavian Cup” or “British Isles Trophy” sprung up as warm-ups to the qualifiers, and these would probably be entertaining and competitive, replacing the current dull friendlies. It wouldn’t surprise me if these type of tournaments, would raise more money than one-off friendlies too, so again, everyone’s a winner.
The only issue I can foresee is timing: where do you fit in what is effectively a “season” (albeit short) of international football? Probably the best way to do it would be to play the domestic season, and then have the international season immediately after. Allowing players a short break to refresh would keep them sharp ahead of the four week international season, divided between warm-up games and then two weeks of qualifiers. Players would then have the Summer to rest up as normal, play the domestic season then do another four week “international season” to finish their qualification campaign, then go to the World Cup in 2014. For me, that would work much better. There’d be no disruption of domestic leagues from a player getting injured on international duty in November, or disadvantages for players who represent nations that are pretty distant and come back jetlagged.
With this sort of reorganisation, you’d also open the door to greater synchronisation of domestic leagues, which will only help the competitiveness of international tournaments, as well as starting the debate on introducing a winter break in the Premier League.
Certainly worthy of thought, though I don’t doubt there will be issues somewhere I haven’t thought of…
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