The Bore That Is International Football

When did I stop caring?
As Gary Cahill stabbed in the first goal against Bulgaria, I sat motionless on the couch. England were winning. Yay. To be honest, I got more excited when Manchester City scored against LA Galaxy in pre-season.

Club has always been more important than country, but I have always followed my country keenly. Endless memories of England games flood back to me. Sulking in my room, inconsolable after England exited Italia 90 on penalties. Celebrating Beckham’s free kick against Greece at Old Trafford. The misery of seeing England knocked out by Croatia and getting soaked to the skin in the process. 5-1 away to Germany, 4-1 against Holland, watching England beat Scotland 2-0 at Euro 96 in the suburbs as the IRA had blown up my city. Rivalries with friends are put to one side as you support a common cause.

But the memories are getting more fleeting. 3-0 away to Bulgaria? Routine stuff, on to the next game. I still care, and always will. But the fact is that most international games simply don’t matter, at least not when your team is a hot favourite to qualify – for teams that are occasional qualifiers, it is a different ball-game.

The problem is, there is a crucial or interesting game once or twice a year at most (outside finals). Compare that with the constant excitement, pressure, stresses and ups and downs of following your club side, whatever their ability. The Sunday Supplement show this week spent almost an hour debating England, and for all I cared they might as well have been discussing the best external filter for a Juwel Vision 180 fish tank (a matter much closer to my heart).

So few games matter (enough). There are occasionally shocks where teams fail to qualify but on the whole the usual suspects get through. The qualifying stage for an international tournament is similar to the group stages of the Champions League- largely pointless, predictable and merely a warm up to the main event(s). Many games are uncompetitive (only this week Holland beat San Marino 11-0), friendlies are more boring and pointless than a paint-drying competition, and what’s more they signify a break in club football, which can be very painful indeed. Early-season internationals are worst of all, because just as the new domestic season is up and running and getting your football juices flowing (so to speak), it stops again because England are playing.

Failure to win your group still gives 2nd places finishers a get out of jail card by way of a play-off. In fact, England can finish second and qualify automatically – someone will. Seeding means no clash of the titans, and England always seem to be playing the same teams. No more Poland for twenty years please.

Press hyperbole, hatchet jobs and coverage that occasionally veers into the realms of xenophobia just adds to the unpalatable nature of this format of the sport. England teams are hyped up as world-beaters before the inevitable crushing disappointment of the penalty shoot out defeat. Any player that breaks through is hyped up to the extent that fans expect a mix of Beckenbauer/Pele and Eusebio rolled into one. Phil Jones is already being touted as a future England captain. But then it is a peculiar English trait to build them up before knocking them down. International failure results in scapegoats being quickly identified, and harassed for the following season or two. Unsuccessful managers have their heads replaced by root vegetables, and then the cycle begins all over again.

The press campaign for an English manager will inevitably lead to the appointment of Harry Redknapp, who will conduct all press conferences leaning out of a car window whilst moaning about being down to the bare bones, and his friends in the press and willingness to always have a sound bite to hand will ensure he will get a quarter of the criticism Fabio Capello is currently getting.

And most importantly, who’s bright idea was it to play on a Friday night?!

Of course many of these criticisms can be aimed at club football too. After all, the Scottish league is an annual two-horse race, Arsenal lost 8-2 last week and Spurs 5-1 at home, rather undermining the competitiveness of the league, whilst Manchester United won 18 out of 19 league games at home last season. But at least games come thick and fast, and close, exciting games are to be found every weekend. There is still more competitiveness and unpredictability than in national football.

You could argue also that the team’s constant underachievement is a turn-off too, but if I used that logic elsewhere I would have abandoned my club team twenty years ago. And what’s more, I think England’s results are about right for the skills of the players on the pitch. The sooner that parts of the media realise we are not world-beaters, and never have been, the better.

But England still sells out game after game – the game against Wales in the pouring rain will see the biggest attendance of the international week, anywhere. The fans travel abroad more than any other teams fan’s. The pubs are full for games. The press coverage during finals is almost all England-related. A good performance from England can even boost our fragile economy. And much as I love Wembley, and support having a national stadium (unlike many), sending England around the country did rouse interest in games even more.

But when it boils down to it, the reasons are simple. Unexciting games, against moderate or poor opposition, every few months. It’s hard to get excited when there’s so little to excite. Qualifying is a means to an end, a warm-up for the main event – trying to win a trophy. I do still care – the problem is, it’s only once every two years.