International football gets a lot of negative press.
You can hear a collective sense of frustration when friendly games come around, although the UEFA Nations League has given friendlies a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, fans incessantly complain that international football has become a nuisance and an inconvenient interruption of the “real” football that is the club game.
It doesn’t help that club football dwarfs international football because it generates stratospheric amounts of revenue and is, generally speaking, considered to be of higher quality. For example, most people seem to agree that the UEFA Champions League is of better quality than the World Cup. Oh, how things have changed.
But international football still matters.
There’s a magic to them that the club game can’t and never will be able to replicate. To celebrate this magic, here are three reasons why we should continue to cherish and love international football.
One: They bring a nation together
As we all know, many countries around the world are going through a lot of political and social unrest. Protests, controversial elections, and growing levels of inequality mean that a lot of people are feeling angry and disempowered.
Add to that the lockdown procedures of the last year and a half that forced most of the world to stay home and deprived them of social contact, and it’s clear to see why we need something positive to unite, rather than divide us.
Unlike club football, international football tends to bring in the everyday fan of the game and allows them to enjoy it without needing to be a diehard supporter. The entire nation, including your average Joe who doesn’t care too much about sports, will join in on the festivities because it’s more about rooting for your country and having fun than all the drama regarding the financial implications of failing to qualify for the Champions League.
Since international football generally doesn’t carry the type of baggage that club football does (with a few exceptions in politically charged games in games like Serbia-Kosovo or Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland), it’s a more welcoming and appealing environment for more casual fans to join the party.
And after all the madness of the last year and a half, I think we could all use a good party.
Two: They make people feel represented
One of the chapters in my book You Say Soccer, I Say Football that I most enjoyed writing was the one titled Representation. (Note: my book is now available for purchase at Barnes & Noble!)
In that chapter, I wrote about how one of the deepest and most fundamental human desires is our desire to feel represented. We hate to feel disenfranchised and we want something — be it art, a famous celebrity from our hometown, an amazing local restaurant, or even a football team — to represent us and show the world that we are not insignificant.
International football is so powerful because it makes a nation feel represented. In what remains one of my favorite footballing quotes, the Uruguayan poet and literary genius Eduardo Galeano described international football beautifully and perfectly on page 42 of his book Football in Sun and Shadow:
“The sky-blue shirt was proof of the existence of the nation: Uruguay was not a mistake. Football pulled this little country out of the shadows of universal anonymity.”
Feeling represented makes us feel heard and validated. And for a lot of people, that’s really all that they want. Is that too much to ask?
Three: Club football has become increasingly and unacceptably unequal
In another chapter of my book — I swear this article is not a sneaky attempt at promoting my book — I talk about the extraordinary levels of financial inequality in club football. The Big Five of Germany, England, Spain, Italy, and France earn and produce a staggering portion of revenue in both European and global football.
The rest of the world simply cannot compete with these juggernauts because they can only afford to pay their players a fraction of the stellar wages that the likes of Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid offer their superstars.
As we all know, the much-maligned Super League fiasco was supposedly an attempt to “save” club football from this financial emergency and restore a sense of financial stability to the club game. (That is, if you believe the benevolent overlords Florentino Pérez and our very own Andrea Agnelli.)
International football, while certainly not perfect, is a far more level playing field than club football. Given how little time that coaches have to spend with their international players, it’s harder for teams to establish the type of entrenched dominance that we see in the club game. Probably the longest dynasty of power was the Spanish team that won the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup, which was “only” three competitions.
Contrast that with the staggering runs of Bayern Munchen (9 consecutive titles), Juventus (9 consecutive titles until the spell was broken this season), Celtic (also 9 consecutive titles until Rangers won the title this season), and others across Europe, and a mere three consecutive titles by Spain looks insignificant in comparison.
International football is, therefore, a welcome change of pace from the monotonous predictability of club football.
Let’s at least try to keep football unpredictable, shall we?