What a week it’s been for Irish football; after trouncing Gibraltar 7-0 on Saturday, a last-gasp equaliser from John O’Shea on his 100th cap saw them snatch a superb away point against world champions Germany on Tuesday night which sees them end the international break sitting pretty in second place in Group D, level on points with leaders Poland.
Indeed, it proved to be an even more memorable week for Robbie Keane, as the Irish captain took full advantage of what was always going to be a goal glut against newcomers Gibraltar to score a first-half hat-trick, which means he is now the top scorer in European Championship history. His tally of 65 goals places him in joint 14th position in the list of all-time international goalscorers, above the likes of Ronaldo, Romario, David Villa and Thierry Henry.
Keane’s milestone is a fantastic achievement for a man who has represented his country 137 times, more than any other Irishman. Since making his debut in 1998, the LA Galaxy striker has never been one to shy away from international commitments, and ample praise for his exploits is fully deserved.
In a broader context, however, Keane’s feat gives us an indication of what might be wrong not only with the European qualifying format, but with international football as a whole as well. While nothing should be taken away from what Keane has achieved, a pair of fixtures against Gibraltar was always going to present him with the opportunity to boost his goals tally in a way that would be virtually unthinkable against most other sides in European football.
Teams such as Gibraltar, San Marino and Andorra have as much a right to participate in the qualifying process as any other nation, however the perpetual lack of competition that they provide does diminish the prestige of international football somewhat. Representing one’s country is supposed to be the zenith of one’s career, an acknowledgement that you are good enough to compete with the very best in world football, yet being pitted against a team consisting mainly of amateurs in every qualification campaign is hardly a test of one’s abilities, and the bucketload of goals that strikers can expect to score when facing such lowly opposition hugely distorts one’s overall impact on the international stage.
Take Archie Thompson of Australia, for example. The Melbourne Victory striker is third in the list of all-time Australian top goalscorers with 28 goals, yet almost half of those famously came in a single game against American Samoa. The 31-0 victory in 2001 remains a world record, during which Thompson bagged 13 goals. Without these strikes, he does not even make the top ten list.
The increasing regularity of lucrative friendlies also contributes to this significant distortion, and again takes the lustre away from international football. Argentina versus Brazil is one of the most mouth-watering ties in the game; the less frequent the two teams meet the better, as there ought to be a real sense of occasion whenever these two hugely successful South American heavyweights clash. However, the past seven fixtures have all been friendlies, with all but two of them embellished as the Superclasico de las Américas. The most recent game was played last week in smog-ridden Beijing, which gives us a strong idea of the real motives behind such a fixture. Indeed, in the past ten years, half of the games between the two teams have taken place outside of Brazil and Argentina, with players of both sides obliged to participate in pointless yet profitable friendlies in Qatar, England, Germany and the United States.
Such blatant profiteering from the world’s most recognisable national sides is damaging to the integrity of international football. With 40 goals, 22 year-old Neymar is well on course to overtake Pele as Brazil’s top scorer, yet a staggering 30 of those goals have come in friendlies. Brazil are essentially the Harlem Globetrotters of football, bandied about the countries of the world like an exhibition team, and though Neymar will almost certainly beat the long-standing record of Pele – one of the greatest footballers of all time – will it be that great an achievement given that most goals have so far come in uncompetitive, rather than competitive, fixtures?
The solution to the two problems identified is relatively straightforward. The whipping boys of international football, as has already been noted, should have the opportunity to play competitvely just like any other nation; nevertheless, a pre-qualifying stage for the lowest ranked teams in each qualification zone would not only allow these teams to play games in which they might actually win, but it would also increase the overall competitveness of the actual qualifying process. What’s more, these sides are hardly going to have busy schedules and swathes of friendly invitations, so such a proposal should not be too impractical. As for friendlies, treating football fans from around the globe who do not usually get the chance to watch top international sides to the occasional fixture is perfectly fine, however there ought to be a quota on the maximum amount of friendlies each team is allowed to play.
Put these ideas in place, and international football can regain its competitive edge.