Forget The Assumption Of A 'Meaningless' Friendly

Despite the widespread lack of interest in England's friendly against Norway, Philip Cornwall investigates why, actually, it really does matter. England need results...

Last Updated: 03/09/14 at 12:11 Post Comment

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If there has to be an international break - and there does - then it would ease the blow a little if the opposition were of a decent calibre. Alas, the best the Norwegian FA could come up with to disrupt the Tippeligaen was a game against England...

As so often, the national team feel like a punchline at the moment, but not one that is particularly funny (and so ideally suited to my jokes). Norway - without a tournament appearance since Euro 2000 - are the more unappealing of the teams at the half-empty Wembley on Wednesday. But after four tournament cycles in which we have struggled to achieve mediocrity, no wonder the FA are struggling to sell tickets.

Objections to the break need little rehearsal. The Premier League is three matches old and bubbling away with drama: the champions convincingly beat the pretenders then were humbled; the pretenders recovered quickly to put some wannabes in their place; the leaders had the first top flight 6-3 to be live on television; and the fallen giants have set spending records. We all want to see what happens next, and as soon as possible - even those of us who will be among the 35,000 or so at Wembley, and then travelling to Switzerland on Monday.

However if the three-and-a-half weeks in France 2016 appeal, then in fact there is enough to command attention in the next few days. And while the trip to Switzerland can set the tone for the qualifying campaign, the friendly against Norway is not meaningless. Arguably it means too much.

FIFA's rankings have long been criticised but few could argue with England suffering a precipitous drop after picking up a solitary point in Brazil. A flattering third in August 2012, tenth at the time the rankings for the World Cup draw were set, England have now slipped to 20th. Greg Dyke's slit throat gesture proved all too apposite after Roy Hodgson's team were placed in the same group as seeded Uruguay and Italy; over the next 14 months, the first target is qualification but the second is to maximise chances of an easier draw for the finals in France.

Twentieth in the world equates to 12th in Europe - in the context of six groups of four for the expanded finals, that means being on the cusp between the second and third pots. England were seeded fifth for the Euro 2012 draw, behind only Spain, Holland, Germany and Italy (with two places taken up by co-hosts Poland and Ukraine). And right now who is the fifth-ranked European team? Switzerland, ninth in the world after reaching the World Cup last 16.

Of course, the Swiss had a friendly draw in Brazil; though spanked by France, their wins over Ecuador and Honduras took them through. And how did they wind up in such a position? Well, winning their qualifying group with 24 points, two more than England, helped. But so too did playing only four friendlies between August 2012 and October 2013.

Naturally, FIFA award more points for competitive results than friendly ones, and because of the uneven nature of the opposition you earn more points for beating a high-ranked team than a low one. But because the ranking constitutes four years' averages of points won, playing friendlies - even if you win them - drags your ranking down, as I wrote hereabouts before December's draw. This is why FIFA used the rankings from October 2013, not November: teams in the play-offs could move up, teams who had won their groups and were playing friendlies would move down. As it was, the Swiss edged out Holland and Italy for the last World Cup seeding place by two points, 1138 to 1136; had they played one more friendly, regardless of the result, their average would have been pulled down.

England were a further 56 points behind the Swiss last October, so would have needed to cut out most of the draws in their qualifying group to close the gap; but the friendly results took their toll, too - along with the simple fact of having played them. In the relevant period Switzerland beat Croatia, Tunisia and Brazil, while drawing with Greece; England beat Italy, Brazil and Scotland, and drew with Brazil, but also drew with low-ranked Ireland and, after some swapping of personnel in the final minutes, had a 2-1 lead in Sweden become a 4-2 defeat.

What does this mean? Of the two matches, the competitive game against Switzerland is much more important and victory will greatly improve England's 2014 rating. But regardless of a win in Basel, England will drop ranking points in the coming week should they fail to beat Norway. Likewise, in November if they beat Slovenia but do not win in Scotland then they will slip.

There are financial considerations for the FA: they need to stage friendlies in order to pay for a national stadium, unlike the Swiss. England have an unappealing qualifying group, too, so some high-calibre opposition will be required at Wembley. They need Hodgson's revamped team to entertain, to win back the crowds put off by the summer. The manager needs to experiment, to find the best side to make an impression if we get to France; but to help the draw when we get there, to improve the prospects for World Cup qualifying too, he needs to win. Starting against Norway.

Philip Cornwall

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