The first international break of the season is usually cause for scorn at the best of times. As the club season just begins to warm up, and you are reminded of what you’ve missed all summer, everything stops so we can watch often one-sided international ties. The pause to the club game stings even more in years such as this, where we are less than two months removed from a major international tournament. The most baffling element about this current break is the fact that three fixtures are being shoehorned into a six-day period.
When the UEFA Nations League was introduced, it was sold to fans as a way of reducing the amount of meaningless friendlies and extended international breaks, streamlining international football to make it a more palatable interruption to the club season. In reality, between these games and the still-lengthy and illogically formatted World Cup qualifying, it feels like there is more international football than ever.
Nobody who watched England’s walkover against Andorra on Sunday can claim it felt like anything more than a pre-season friendly. For manager Gareth Southgate, it almost had to be treated as such due to it taking place only three days before what promises to be a far trickier tie away to Poland. Packing the games in like this impedes quality, as teams look to rest players and conserve energy for the more serious tests to come. This is exacerbated by the fact many players who took part in Euro 2020 are only just returning to full fitness, and thus must be handled with care.
Solutions have been offered to this glut of international football, and the disruption it causes. Journalist Miguel Delaney suggested an eight-month league format followed by three months of internationals. This would serve to keep league football uninterrupted, while giving internationals the feel of a summer tournament.
It would also solve an issue many national team managers have contended with over the years. At the moment, coaches have to impart a philosophy and style of play in one-to-two week bursts, needing to keep their instructions simple so they do not overload players with information. With three months to work with, there would be room for more sophisticated ideas to be instilled. On the negative side, the very nature of starting an international career would change. No longer would a player burst on the scene with a run of good form for their club, and get a shock call-up for his country. International selections would be more considered, with only the most consistent players being chosen.
Former Arsenal manager and current FIFA head of global development Arsene Wenger has also expressed his thoughts on the future of the international game. Wenger’s plan hinges on staging a World Cup every two years, a controversial suggestion that would likely damage the prestige of international football’s gala event. This structure would allow for one break during the season for qualifying, and then either a World Cup or a continental cup at the end of the season. The main sticking point for this plan would be the need for cooperation from UEFA. The European governing body often clashes with its global counterpart, and it is difficult to envisage the current UEFA regime agreeing to stage the European Championship every two years at the behest of FIFA.
Cramming three matches into less than a week does not benefit anyone. The coaches get minimal time to work with their players, with no choice but to focus on light work in order to keep everyone fit. The players are not helped, as the potential for burnout and injury is increased with so much football packed into a short space of time. The fans don’t get much here either, as teams stop short of going at full pelt to preserve their players for only the most important games. There are solutions on the table, but it is hoped that those in power can streamline the nature of international breaks without having to erode the integrity of the World Cup and the European Championships.