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Ken Early: Why international football is fading into obscurity

Last 20 years has seen the international game clearly bypassed by elite club football

The last even-numbered year when European countries did not play a major football tournament was 1956: Elvis Presley’s I Want You, I Need You was the sound of the summer, and there was a polio epidemic in Cork.

In the original schedule for 2020, the first Euros match in Dublin was supposed to be kicking off two weeks from today. In the new schedule that is supposed to be the week the Premier League returns.

June 2020 means the weird spectacle of empty-stadium football as the European top divisions with the biggest TV deals grimly play out the fixtures they are contractually obliged to fulfil.

It sounds – and most likely will be – terrible. Still, is anyone really that upset about missing out on Euro 2020? Behind-closed-doors Premier League games might be dull and soulless, but can they possibly generate as much instantly forgettable garbage as Euro 2016?


As someone who has travelled to cover every World Cup and European Championships since 2002, it pains me to say that the last really great international tournament was also the last one I didn’t go to.

Why do I say that Euro 2000 was the last great tournament? Is it that tournaments feel more enjoyable when you are watching them for fun, compared to when you are trying to analyse them for work? Is it that I was 21 when Euro 2000 happened, and have now become one of those people who goes around saying how much better everything was when they were 21?

Even factoring these reasons in, I still believe Euro 2000 really was better than all the tournaments since. It was the last tournament where you could feel like you were watching the sport played at the highest level, for the highest stakes, with the best players giving career-defining performances in classic matches that would be remembered for years.

There have been few more anticlimactic finals than Euro 2012, when Italy swaggered in full of confidence having knocked out much-fancied Germany in the semis

It had a great final, with that beautiful golden-goal Trezeguet winner, had great champions in the French team, built on the Lizarazu-Blanc-Desailly-Thuram back four that never lost a game, and inspired by the genius of Zinedine Zidane.

There was also a spectacular supporting cast. Most of the running was made by Frank Rijkaard's penaltyphobic Netherlands, eliminated in the semis after missing five out of seven spot-kicks against Italy, who were themselves a magnificent team that embodied everything that is best in their country's football tradition.

Absolute priority

There was the flowing style and charisma of Portugal's golden generation, the amazing Spanish 4-3 comeback win against Yugoslavia, and the doomed heroism of Pavel Nedved as the Czechs failed to escape a group of death.

Even England's contribution was classic in its way, as they began with a wildly entertaining 3-2 defeat to Portugal (a match that somehow prompted the Spanish paper AS to label David Seaman "a piece of meat with eyes") and finished with another 3-2 defeat to Romania, the latter courtesy of a Phil Neville penalty giveaway that was so traumatic for the full-back, he ended up turning to Christ.

The 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea was the first of the new and now familiar kind of tournament, the first time it felt like this wasn't really the absolute priority for the best players.

That World Cup took place two weeks earlier than normal, kicking off on the 30th of May to avoid the worst of the regional rainy season, with the result that many of the stars turned up exhausted and conspicuously failed to perform. Subsequent tournaments returned to the traditional timeslot but never quite recaptured the traditional glow.

The obvious explanation is that the Champions League has spent the last 20 years drinking international football's milkshake. It's not just that the standard of football is much better, though it clearly is. That much is plain from the couple of times when a top Champions League team has escaped into international football and proceeded to lay waste to the competition, like a ship's cat running amok on Dodo Island.

For a few years Spain fielded a team that was essentially the Champions League-winning Barcelona side plus a couple of ringers from Real Madrid, and it turned out that international teams couldn't get the ball off them.

There have been few more anticlimactic finals than Euro 2012, when Italy swaggered in full of confidence having knocked out much-fancied Germany in the semis, only to find they couldn't lay a glove on Barça. 2014 brought an even more chilling demonstration of the gap in quality, when Brazil lost 7-1 at home to Bayern Munich.

And if familiarity has bred contempt among the spectators, just imagine how it feels for the players

Thankfully most of the best Champions League teams are more multinational than those Bayern and Barcelona teams, so these unfortunate crossover events don’t happen very often.

The real problem is that international football featuring the big stars of the age has lost its rarity value, because of the proliferation of Champions League matches that feature all the same players. In the summer of 2000, there had still only been three seasons where runners-up in the big European leagues were allowed to compete in the Champions League.

Pointless remixes

Now the big leagues all have four representatives, and the cumulative effect of decades of expansions and group stages and staggered kick-off times and wealth concentration is that international tournament matches no longer feel like generational occasions that will define the players’ legacies.

They feel like slightly pointless remixes of the better-quality club matches you’ve been watching all season. And if familiarity has bred contempt among the spectators, just imagine how it feels for the players.

Silvio Berlusconi arguably did more than anyone else to force the development of football down this path, demanding the restructuring of the European Cup to produce more matches between the biggest clubs, and to remove the risk of those clubs being knocked out early, a sporting possibility that he considered "a historical anachronism . . . economic nonsense".

In 1991, he predicted that “the concept of the national team will, gradually, become less and less important. It is the clubs with which the fans associate”.

Berlusconi was the owner of AC Milan at the time, so, you know, he would say that. Three years after that he entered politics, naming his new party after an Italian national team chant – the politician Berlusconi recognised that the national team still packed some kind of emotional punch, even if the big-club-owner Berlusconi pretended not to. But nearly three decades on, it seems Berlusconi's self-serving prophecy also turned out to be self-fulfilling.