International Football: Time to Reinvent?

International football presents us football enthusiasts an interesting conundrum. All of us feel that competition can hardly get more important than when national teams cross swords; we know that it is a matter of utmost pride and prestige for the participants as well as the spectators. We convince ourselves that we should be interested in international football ; it is the logical thing to do. So we gear up to cheer our own nations or adopted favourites (in the absence of at least one to enjoy as neutrals), and for the sumptuous spectacle that is supposed to be on offer. However, more often than not the actual fare leaves us with a distinct lack of fulfilment. The feeling is usually fleeting since remedy is close at hand as we dip into the fortunes of our favourite clubs, either on the field or through the transfer window. We realize that international football does not really matter as long as we have steady access to our regular dope of club football, well at least until the next international break or major tournament in summer when we can go back to feigning interest in it.But is it supposed to be so? I have been brought up on folklore about the glorious Brazilians of ’58, ’62 and ’70, the clinical Italians circa ’82, the glorious underdogs from Uruguay circa ’50, the controversial Argentines circa ‘78; the beautifully tragic Dutch circa ’74, Hungarians circa ‘54 and Brazilians circa ’82; Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Platini, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Kempes, Eusebio, Moore and other greats who had written their tales on the international stage. Today seeing the disinterested individuals and disjointed teams,
I sometimes wonder where has the romance gone, and how, if at all, can it be resurrected. In an effort to understand the reason for the apparent decline in standards, in the following paragraphs, I shall try to look at why the quality of football played at the club level is usually better than that at the international level, some of the inherent advantages club football has in its capacity to draw audiences, and try to analyse whether certain watershed events have accentuated the advantages.The clubs themselves have been there for ages and football has been the primary reason for their existence. Hence there are long and elaborate histories and rivalries woven into them. Also, clubs in Europe were initially set up as community institutions that bound people together. Hence the clubs always drew a focused and strong following, with deep, non-negotiable loyalties. Although these days most clubs have lost that thread with the community to various extents due to corporatization, these feelings have been retained and passed on from generation to generation. Hence supporters of clubs feel a strong sense of attachment to the institution which can compete with the attachment an individual feels with his country. This to my mind negates a major part of the advantage an international structure might have had otherwise. Its competitors are equally well entrenched in the public psyche, so they are on an equal footing; the international game not gaining any advantage by dint of nationalistic or patriotic sentiment. Thus with no advantage to either side based on sentiment, it is the quality of the product that assumes primary importance in wooing the customer. In this respect, club football enjoys a few inherent advantages.Club football is a constant. Once the season starts, there is usually a game played at least once a week, sometimes more. Further, in the age of all permeating media, even between the games the public is bombarded with an incessant flow of information from newspapers, blogs, club websites, TV, podcasts, radio etc. Even during the summer, the transfer window keeps people occupied, arguably more than during the months of action on the field. The cumulative effect is that of a story evolving continuously, like that of a soap opera. International football fails miserably in this regard. With matches being played intermittently during the season, it has no means to capture the mind of its audience on a continuous basis. As a result, internationals played during the season are often treated by the public as an inconvenience that disrupts the engaging narrative of club football. Sure, people watch the international matches, but in isolation. The product fails to create a lasting impression on their minds, and the effect of international football is promptly diluted by the resumption of the domestic season’s soap opera immediately after.
The constant nature of club football also enhances its quality. Players whotrain together every day of the week on the same system are expected to create better teamwork and understanding on the field. International football collects players based around the globe, providing them only a couple of days to get used to each other, and to a system that may be entirely different from the one they are used to playing throughout the year. Also it is easier to build up defensive organization over a shorter period than coordination in attack, hence more often than not international football played during the season becomes a contest between disjointed attacks and relatively better organized defences, and the result is football lacking fluidity.

The only time international football operates without the distraction of club football is during the major tournaments that are mostly played during the summer break. In the World Cup, Euro and Copa America we do see stories evolving which have the capacity to provide a narrative to the audience, but the ground thus covered is offset by the timing. With the bloated Champions League and Europa League format involving three and sometimes four teams from the major leagues, double-legged domestic cups, competitive and friendly internationals, a top player playing in Europe plays close to 50 matches over the season proper.

Hence, come summer they are more often than not jaded and not at their best physically and mentally, sometimes carrying niggling injuries from the season long grind. Still, with understanding developing over the duration of the tournament, we do get to see better football towards the later stages of the big tournaments. While it is not as riveting as club football, every major tournament has its moments. But the end of a tournament again ends the narrative; with the summer transfer window taking up the airtime immediately, the thread of the narrative is lost. So at the time of the first international break in the following season, international football once again has a clean slate in the public mind to work on, and the cycle continues.But the sceptic in you would still ask the question – all this existed in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well, then how could international football from those eras manage to create the legacies talked about in the opening paragraphs? I believe the root cause can be found in some key changes that happened in the football scene over the years. During the decades gone by, football was not as widely available for viewing. The major international tournaments were sometimes the only window available for watching football from around the globe. Hence the teams competing had freshness about them. A lot of the audience outside Holland in ‘74 would at best have heard of total football as a concept. While its roots were being developed in Ajax the greater football community wouldn’t have been widely exposed to its beauty. Hence the experience of watching the Dutch masters would have been a novel and enriching one. The Magyars in ‘54, Brazil in ’58, ‘62, and ‘70, Portugal in ’66, all must have had the benefit of providing the global audience a chance to witness something they would have only heard of in stories and accounts, if at all.
However, with the advent of satellite television, football from all over the world became available in our drawing rooms. Now with internet and online videos it is available in our bedroom. So the international tournaments have lost that allure of the unknown; today whatever Brazil, Holland, Spain or Argentina have to offer has already been seen and internalised multiple times over. Further, in the past football was not so globalised, hence each nation could retain and develop its own philosophy, its uniqueness. Today, with the Bosman ruling, movement between clubs have become much easier, and talents from South America, Africa and even European nations like France, Holland and Portugal are poached by the big clubs early in their careers. Thus the intermingling of football philosophies at club level has resulted in football at the international level losing much of its uniqueness. Hence it is harder to find a clash of philosophies at the international level with all countries moving towards a mean, the Brazilians and the Dutch adding steel and physicality to their fluidity, and the Germans and the Italians adding flair to their organization. Increasingly, the only potential for surprise during a major international tournament is when an African, an Asian or a smaller South American nation puts together a run. But globalization is catching up fast here as well. Ghana’s progress in the last World Cup failed to evoke the same mystique as Senegal, Cameroon or South Korea’s exploits in earlier editions. This was because many of their players were already household names thanks to their exploits in European club football, and with increased coverage of the African Cup of Nations and the Asia Cup, people knew what to expect from representatives of these continents.Thus a combination of multiple factors has resulted in a deterioration of the quality of international football and its ability to thrill and surprise the audience. While the major international tournaments still enjoy their importance in the football calendar, it is more for their aura and heritage. The end product on offer is decidedly poorer than what the audience is exposed to on a weekly basis at club level. The situation presents a crossroad for international football – will it maintain status quo and meander along or will it be able to reinvent itself, win back some of its appeal and carve a niche? International football has too much historical and cultural significance to be reduced to just a sideshow, hence football fans wait for the authorities to find the right answers.———————————————-

Saumyajit Ray can be reached at