Ken Early: Nations League is what international football needs
International friendlies had completely lost their relevance and competition is needed
Spain’s Rodrigo and England’s John Stones fight for the ball during Saturday’s Nations League match at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: EPA/Neil Hall
One reason why many people had reservations about the Uefa Nations League was that the tournament is practically impossible to explain. It’s not because anything about it is conceptually difficult, but because by the time you have got to the part about the qualification places for the Euros going to the best-placed teams that have not already qualified via the traditional pathway, everyone is losing the will to live.
And yet the first week seems to have gone reasonably well, as best demonstrated by the atmosphere at Wembley during the closing stages of England’s 1-2 defeat to Spain.
A standard “glamour” friendly between these teams would have petered out long before the end as both coaches substituted their entire teams and the fans left to beat the traffic. This was different. The eagerness with which England chased and celebrated Welbeck’s late equaliser, and their rage when the referee harshly disallowed it, showed that while some of the players might not have drawn a very informative diagram to illustrate the competition’s structure, they instinctively grasped that there was something at stake.
The advantage of a format like this is not really about the maguffin of the notional Euros qualifying places awaiting some of the best-placed teams. It’s because in place of friendlies – “meaningless” friendlies, as they had come to be known – we have competition, obscure as it may be.
At the most basic level these matches are now affecting your place in the hierarchy and the company you get to keep. Win your matches and you get to play more difficult and interesting matches against some of the best players in the world. Lose and you might eventually end up in the same group as Ireland.
And so what would have been a dull friendly between England and Spain felt more like a tournament match. It turns out that even if the tournament has no history, an offputtingly complicated structure, and exists for the sole purpose of generating more premium football content to sell to TV companies around Europe, the mere fact that the teams are involved in some sort of competition is enough to pique the interest of players and fans.
That it took so long for Uefa to come up with something like this is testament to football’s institutional arrogance and complacency. The international friendly is an idea that comes to us from the dawn of the age of mass entertainment a century ago, when any international sporting event had an aura of glamour and novelty.
Friendlies continued to be an acceptable form of entertainment perhaps as late as the early 1990s: while there may not have been anything tangible at stake they still represented a rare opportunity to see football of the very highest level, they retained a bit of that Test Match rarity value.
But as football became a super-saturated, big-money TV sport, as the big club teams developed squads stronger than most international teams and international club fixtures proliferated in expanded European competitions, the international friendly lost any remaining relevance.
They were despised by clubs for exposing their players to pointless wear and tear, and they were also disliked by players because when you already have up to 50 competitive matches to play in any given season, it’s difficult to understand why another three or four non-competitive ones should be crammed into the schedule as well, when all you got out of playing these matches was the opportunity to get injured and fall out with your club.
The clubs and the players succeeded in forcing the international FAs and coaches to see things their way, and by the early 2000s it had become the norm for all the good players in any given friendly to be subbed off no later than the hour mark.
That was when all the fans started to hate friendlies too, because what is the point of paying, with either your money or your attention, to watch a non-contest that clearly does not matter to any of the participants?
Friendlies were just a frustrating interruption to the real football, and the fact that some countries figured out they could rise in the Fifa rankings by playing fewer of them only underlined their absurdity.
Recently the feeling of bored resentment with which everyone regarded friendlies had begun to seep into the attitude towards competitive international matches. The international game has long struggled with a chronic shortage of interesting matches. Because tournament qualification groups are seeded, the stronger countries only get to play each other either in tournaments, which happen only every second summer, or friendlies, which nobody cares about. Many other qualification matches are too lopsided to be interesting.
Because the Nations League addresses both of these issues it looks like being good news for fans, for international coaches – who are protected by the competition rules from the expectation that they will spare their star players the obligation of playing the full 90 minutes – and for the players, who always enjoy playing for their country in matches that seem to matter.
The only “stakeholders” who lose out are the clubs, whose players will now have to play more competitive matches for their “other” teams. But the clubs have had it all their own way for too long. The game they have shaped, with its dominating superclubs, its endless weekends of staggered kick-off times and now the idea of league matches overseas, has started to look too much like a racket and a stitch-up for many tastes.
International football promises a sanctuary of sorts from the idea that money decides everything: as Martin O’Neill never stops reminding us, you have to make do with the players you’ve got.
The World Cup reminded us of the potential of an international game that has been held back for too long by outdated structures. The Nations League is only a start, and a limited one – it hasn’t even succeeded in making European friendlies extinct, not yet. But it is at least a move in the right direction.