Friday, March 27, 2015

Breaking Away

Ah, the international break. Those precious, innumerable weekends where crap football is crammed into the schedule, football personalities make jingoistic and often racially-insensitive remarks, and debates about which of England’s mediocre footballers should make it into the mediocre squad reign supreme (if you really think Danny Ings is the answer, you’ve got the question wrong). It’s everything that is wrong in football compressed into a long weekend. And yet, somehow, it remains popular. I personally know people who actually look forward to international friendlies, and of course the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. Still, we can’t keep lying to ourselves. International football is an anachronistic relic that enables petty nationalism and breeds corruption. The quality of play is lower, and it detracts enormously from club football and the players’ welfare. In order to improve the game, the whole enterprise should be scrapped.

Roberto Mancini just gave the perfect example of why international football is so out of place with the world today when he stated his preference that only people born in Italy should play for the Italian national team. In one sense, he’s absolutely right. It doesn’t make sense that players who were born in a country and came through that football system should play for another country. It doesn’t make sense that Diego Costa plays for Spain, or that Deco played for Portugal, or that Camoranesi played for Italy. However, in another sense, he’s dead wrong, as someone who is a citizen of a country deserves to represent that country. How can you tell an American citizen born in Germany whose father was in the American military that he is not eligible to represent the USA? And that is the problem: in today’s globalized world, people are increasingly likely to have overlapping national identities, which make it impossible to have a “national” team. At this point, it is just as probable that someone will choose to play for a given national team because the football circumstances there are particularly favorable as they are to choose the team based on a genuine feeling of national affinity. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that FIFA continues to classify certain political unions as separate, individual nation states. This is seen most glaringly with the home nations and the overseas French departments. In this day and age, nationality is not a particularly good way to organize a team, and tournaments populated with such teams don’t make much sense as a result.

Despite how much the concept of national identity is in flux, international football does serve to inflame intense nationalist sentiment from both fans and political leaders. Football has always had connections to right-wing (and left-wing) nationalist movements, and those elements are still present in club football as well. However, in the larger leagues, that has been tempered by the increasing diversity of footballers representing club teams (although it should be noted that lots of people are fighting this). Fans are often more able to identify with the color of the shirt the player wears, not the colors of his flag. In international football, those colors are the same, combining the tribal identity of rooting for a team with national identity to create a potent mix. This is why events like the Serbia-Albania drone incident continue to happen. Politicians understand the power of this phenomenon. There’s a reason that authoritarian regimes tend to bid to host the Olympics and the World Cup and it’s to take advantage of that patriotic fervor, much more so than any perceived economic benefit.

Unfortunately, the only true economic benefits of international competition go to FIFA, by virtue of having a monopoly on international football. FIFA is able to set aside dates throughout the year when only international games are scheduled, which serves to make them the only product on the market. As any customer of Comcast will tell you, holding a monopoly gives companies no incentive to improve their product or their service, and both are obviously true of FIFA. As an organization, FIFA has reacted slowly to efforts to improve the game with goal-line technology, improved concussion treatment, and the removal of third-party ownership. It is synonymous with corruption, whether it’s the Jack Warner scandal or the Qatar World Cup. The success of international football generally and the World Cup specifically gives them a sense of immunity: no matter what they do, people will continue to watch.

What makes continued viewership so surprising is that the quality of play is often so poor. It’s inevitable that when you put restrictions on what players can play for a team, you’re going to end up with worse teams. Qualification for tournaments features matches with countries such as Liechtenstein, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Bhutan, countries which haven’t produced that many star footballers over the years. Even at the World Cup or the Euros, the average roster is probably worse than the average Premier League roster, and that’s before you take into account that the national teams have less practice time with each other and are therefore less prepared. It’s true even at the top: sure, Germany-Spain is pretty much guaranteed to be a good game, but it’s not going to match Bayern-Barca. You can’t build a team in the same way you can a club side, you’re stuck with the players available to you. If you need a striker, you can’t just go out and get one, and if you have three quality left backs and no right backs, you have no recourse.  As a result often players are forced to be square pegs in round holes to fit into the manager’s system (see the England reign of Sven Goran-Eriksson).

Not only is the quality of international football lower, but its existence lowers the quality of club football as well. It is increasingly obvious that the amount of rest athletes receive dramatically affects their performance levels. FIFA steals four weeks of the domestic calendar for most European leagues which could be used for rest (maybe for the elusive winter break in England) and has players travel greater distances than they would for club teams in order to play multiple matches each week. In a World Cup year, players have to play in the summer, which affects their sharpness on returning to their clubs in August. There are also the continental tournaments, the U-21s, the Olympics, etc. It all adds up to a lot of extra football that takes a toll on players. This in turn contributes to loss of form and injuries in the domestic competitions, hurting the quality and integrity of those leagues.

So given all of this, why does everyone (including me, it must be said) still watch? For one thing, there’s the all-star component of it. It’s a way to see the best players in the world realigned, a way to see potentially awesome combinations of players that haven’t happened in the club world. The constant debate over the England team proves that fans love the opportunity to argue about which players constitute the best 11. Those fans who are against the modernization of the game claim it’s better to see players playing for their country than for money (although that’s a facile argument: in international football the players are paid and the exposure from playing gets them paid more). There’s also the history of international football, which used to be the only way that players like Pele were tested against their European counterparts. Patriotism certainly plays a role in interest, particularly in countries that don’t have a strong domestic league or football culture (like the United States). It’s also the entertaining format of the tournament itself, when games are played in a short span of time and it’s (primarily) knock-out football with none of the two-leg crap you find in the Champions League.

That said, I think football would be much healthier (ethically and physically if not maybe financially) without international football. Giving the international breaks back to the players for rest would help their fitness and improve domestic leagues across the world. Scrapping the World Cup would reduce FIFA’s power and get rid of a large percentage of corruption within the game. Organizing a true Club World Cup to replace it would retain national pride and encourage development of football at the local level, without the potentially dangerous connection to extreme nationalism or the need for long qualifying campaigns. Perhaps there could even be a European all-star game based on voting for the UEFA team of the year to see how the best of the best stack up. What is clear is that international football is no longer connected to how the world works, it is run by an organization that desperately needs reform and will never get it, and it damages leagues across the globe. To improve the game, we need more than an international break, we need a permanent break from international football.

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