Why Are International Squads Limited In Number?

There might be a lot of excitement over who will be on England's plane to Brazil, but Daniel Storey can't see the reason for limiting squad size. Surely it's about country v country..?

Last Updated: 10/05/14 at 12:11 Post Comment

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On Monday, Roy Hodgson will name his provisional squad for the World Cup in Brazil, a list of 30 players that will be cut to 23 before the tournament begins. It will be the culmination of weeks of 'will he, won't he' speculation, rumour and counter-rumour. Some will be elated, others left to rue an opportunity for glory on the highest possible stage missed for another four years.

The traditional squad announcement does create an air of anticipation before an international tournament, that much is clear. Discussions over the merits of Andy Carroll vs Rickie Lambert and which one of Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw should be left to watch from their own lounge generates significant national interest, channelling our excitement for a tournament still a month away. However, there is a valid argument to suggest that the entire process is a totally unnecessary exercise.

One can fully understand the limiting of squad size for domestic or continental competition, although such concepts are a relatively recent measure, regulations designed to limit the stockpiling of players by the richest or most successful clubs. But why are national team managers forced to operate under the same rules, limited to 23 players for a month-long tournament? In fact, why are they limited at all?

The entire point of international football is that the pool of players to select from is pre-defined by geographical eligibility, thus rendering any other limitation pointless. There is a reasonable conclusion to be drawn that 23 is a number deemed manageable both before and during a tournament, but should that not be down to the manager and coaches of the individual nations to decide? If a coach felt that he could deal with 35 individual egos and aspirations, inviting difficult man-management issues, or another alternatively preferred to take 20 players and fly others out when required, then good luck to them.

The obvious retort is that having a squad limit offers a level playing field to those associations without the depth in quality of others, but that seems rather redundant. Germany's 23-man squad is of significantly better quality than that of, say, Algeria. Having a better squad with more capable players simply makes you more likely to be able to compensate for the loss of players through injury.

More importantly, the current 23-man squad imposes preventable limitations. For example, international managers usually select only one primary right-back for tournaments, because the majority view is that should the first choice get injured, a central defender can cover his absence. This extra spot is then traditionally given to an extra central midfielder or forward.

So if your right-back is fouled and badly injured early in the first group game a team is forced to use a player out of position simply through the intricacies of FIFA's rules. Why should a central defender have to play out of position in one of his country's most important matches whilst the resevre right-back sits at home, simply because there wasn't space for him? The inevitable result is that versatile players are preferred over those with greater ability in one position. That's why players such as James Milner are shoo-ins for England's squad.

Young players are also penalised by squad limitation rules. With reduced scope for dealing with injuries, national coaches are less likely to include 'risk' players, instead preferring to rely on the percentage call. In all probability, Hodgson will take Cole and Baines to Brazil despite Luke Shaw's performances this season, but without the 23-man limitation he would surely take all three. Shaw would gain from the experience of being in the camp and potentially be given a late run-out during a group game, rather than watching on from home.

Another (admittedly more unlikely scenario) concerns goalkeepers. Each named squad must contain three goalkeepers, but no allowance is made for injury. So if two of the three keepers within a squad sustain training injuries after the first group game, a country must play out the rest of the tournament with a single option simply because FIFA has decreed 23 to be the magic number. The thought of an outfield player having to operate in goal in a World Cup whilst hundreds of other eligible goalkeepers watch on from home is slightly far-fetched, but not unthinkable.

FIFA's World Cup handbook (I'm sad, I've read it) does not allow for the replacement of any player sustaining an injury to be replaced once their team's tournament has begun. So if a team suffer multiple injuries during a particularly physical match or the squad is hit by a stomach bug, well that's just tough, I'm afraid. An evident response is to say "well that's football, I'm afraid", but such an argument negates the level playing field reasoning referred to earlier. The rather circular answer to such theories seems to be that it is so because it has always been so, but again that appears a particularly insular reaction.

During a week in which the future of the Football League has been bastardised in order to suit the haves rather than have-nots, a World Cup squad limitation might not be the most pressing issue within our game, but that doesn't mean it's not illogical. The World Cup is surely supposed to be about country v country for the ultimate prize, not squad v increasingly depleted squad? Just because a rule has always been in place doesn't make it right.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter.

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