Here we are, in another interlull, which this time isn't just interrupting my Premier League watching, it's destroying the MLS playoffs as well. The first leg of the conference finals was three days after the end of the semifinals, and now there's a two week break between that first leg and the second leg, because MLS is respecting the international break. Huzzah?
Anyway, at risk of overexplaining why I'm TSF's resident crank about these things, I figured I'd start a discussion about my dislike for international football, instead of just ranting. Inclusiveness! Let's dive right in, shall we? Why, in fact, don't I like international football?
1. It's an anachronism in the modern world.
The first international football match was Scotland v. England, in 1872. It was held as a result of a challenge from the Scottish FA, and was largely a publicity stunt. The first real tournaments were held at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, as demonstration sports, and the first Olympic medals for soccer were awarded in 1908.
Glossing over a bit of history here, FIFA saw that the Olympic tournaments were drawing fans and decided to throw their own international soccer party; the first World Cup was held in 1930, and that tournament grew to become what it is today - the premier international tournament in the world.
One of the big drivers of the early success of international tournaments was the novelty factor - without there being any form of regular international mass media, the thought of seeing a team from a completely different country was very intriguing, like seeing a picture of a landmark from a far off land you'll never go to, or an exotic bird in a zoo. International games were a way of growing or spreading interest in the game from a completely different angle - "come watch the Spanish play this game we invented!" or the like.
It was a way of sharing a culture with a nation when there were not many other ways to do so, and while I can't say that football solved any world crises, there was tremendous value to be had in opening up the world, even a bit at a time, through the common language of sport.
Now, of course, all one must do is fire up their internet connection to be instantly brought up to speed on as many leagues, teams, and games as one would care to be immersed in - the world, as they say, has shrunk rather dramatically thanks to the rise of first radio, then TV, then the Internet. It's not exotic any more to watch the Turkish second division, or to know who plays for Uruguay's national team - if you wanted to, you've seen them play many times by now. There's no novelty there any more, and there's no real cultural bridge to be built for the most part.
2. National teams aren't the default barometer of success any more.
It used to be that the World Cup was the primary way of determining what the best team in the world was; over the last 25 years or so, however, that script has been flipped. The club game is huge around the world, the Champions League has become the world's preeminent football tournament, and the winner of the Champions League is widely regarded as the best team in the world in any given season. Players want to play for teams in the Champions League, and while players also do want to play for their countries, that's seen mostly as a byproduct of success in a domestic league or the Champions League, and not the driver towards said success.
3. Club teams are the ones promoting and spending money on player development, which international football benefits from but doesn't contribute to in any meaningful way.
A player is as good as a player is largely because of the investment his club makes in his development and success, and not because he plays for his country. While countries are starting to develop national academies (Clairefontaine in France was one of the first, Germany's got a good one, and England's is just getting off the ground), the vast majority of player development takes place at the club level - the clubs identify the talent, nurture and develop the talent, and reap most of the rewards of said talent. FIFA claims to be a promoter of the development of the game around the world, but we all know how well they manage that.
A national team calls up a player for a tournament - a callup they can't choose to decline unless they never want to play internationals at all - and reaps the rewards of that hard work, with no remuneration to the club for its efforts, and, if you'll join me in point four, I'll talk about that a bit more.
4. National teams don't have any responsibility to club teams for the well being of their players.
When a player gets an international callup, as mentioned, they have no choice but to go if healthy. If a player gets injured while on international duty, it's sort of a "too bad so sad" situation - the team loses the services of a player for a while, and the national federation does not have to compensate the player's club for lost wages, medical expenses, or anything. The clubs bear all the risk, and get no real reward for doing so.
And for an elite player whose nation goes to the semifinals or finals of an international tournament, the risk and workload gets ridiculous fast - in any given World Cup cycle, a player will start playing in August the season before a World Cup, play that entire season, have a two week break, join his national team, play a World Cup, get a three week break, and go right back to his club and play the second season, which means almost two non-stop years of playing soccer. There hasn't been much science to provide data, but that takes a toll - by the end of that cycle, a player's exhausted, and not moving as fast/passing as well, and is probably more injury prone, because tired people make mistakes more than alert people.
5. How much is too much?
I touched on this a bit in point four, but let's go into it from a different angle. This year alone, there were domestic leagues, there was World Cup qualifying, there was the African Cup of Nations, there was the Gold Cup, there was the Confederations Cup, there were international friendlies, and there are any number of club team preseason tours scattered in there as well. All of this takes a physical toll.
At what point is this too much for players? Players want to play, so they'll go when and where they're asked. But should we ask a bit less? Does there really need to be a Gold Cup, particularly when there are World Cup qualifiers in the same year? Does the Confederations Cup - primarily a logistical exercise for the nation hosting the World Cup - really need to exist?
With all that said, I would love to see the international game just go away; I realize that it won't, but what would be wrong with only having one international tournament, instead of the mismash of continental tournaments and their endless rounds of qualifiers? I just don't see the value in international soccer in this day and age, and while I realize that puts me in a minority, it's a position I've held a long time and it's only deepening as my love of the club game intensifies.