Roughly speaking, the list goes (in order of preference): International tournament football, domestic leagues, European competition, domestic cups, international friendlies, club friendlies. You may move a couple of those up or down one place according to personal preference, but the general order is, I hope, right. The only people who get giddy over pre-season friendlies are the football-starved and those poor souls forced to ‘learn’ things.
The World Cup and European Championship still feel inherently special, partly because they happen so infrequently, but also because they involve a coming together of otherwise disparate footballing groups. English Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal fans, all lying back and thinking of England (before standing up and threatening to throw a plastic chair).
Those in the game feel the same way, or at least purport to. “Representing your country still has to mean as much as anything in football,” said Chris Coleman. “Representing your country brings an incredible thrill, particularly at a tournament.” In his column for The Times during Euro 2016, Vincent Kompany said the same: ‘Everyone talks about international football being the pinnacle of the game.’
Yet it is hard not to fear for the direct future of the international game when the gap between the best players and managers is so great. Sam Allardyce’s appointment as Roy Hodgson’s successor was sandwiched between Giampiero Ventura’s at Italy and Julen Lopetegui being named as Spain’s new manager. It has not been a good week for international football.
It would be slightly snarky to entirely dismiss the credentials of any of these candidates. Ventura did a fine job at Torino in Serie A before departing at the end of last season, while Lopetegui was highly successful with Spain’s Under-21 team, leading them to European Championship victory. He was also strongly linked with vacancies at Nottingham Forest and Wolves. A lesson in upselling youself, if nothing else.
The accusation is obvious, and indisputable: the best coaches don’t stay in international football anymore. Spain’s best manager (Pep Guardiola) doesn’t manager Spain; Italy’s best manager (Antonio Conte/Carlo Ancelotti) doesn’t manage Italy; Portugal’s best manager (Jose Mourinho) doesn’t manage Portugal; France’s best manager (Arsene Wenger) doesn’t manager France; Argentina’s best manager (Diego Simeone) doesn’t manage Argentina. England might actually be an exception to that rule, so let us congratulate the new winner of the Football Association’s tallest dwarf competition.
Nor is the current situation likely to change any time soon. Not only is the money on offer better (and the bonuses more achievable) in club football, but the cost of failure is lower. Collapse spectacularly in a major tournament and a reputation is in tatters. Take the league champions to 16th position in the table in December, and you can still land the Manchester United job six months later.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. Chelsea appointed Conte not on the back of his work with Italy but his three straight titles with Juventus. Joachim Loew led Germany to the World Cup in 2014, yet his name is rarely linked to the biggest jobs in the domestic game. Jorge Sampaoli’s reward for winning the Copa America with Chile and being named South America Coach of the year was to get the Sevilla job, but he had won three league titles and the Copa Sudamericana in two years at Universidad de Chile before his international sojourn.
Club and international football are increasingly existing in isolation. If that inevitably leads towards a battle between the two, there will only be one winner: the financial behemoth of the domestic game will never be beaten.
The World Cup and European Championship was the stage on which every actor needed to perform; now the Champions League final is Broadway. The international arena was where coaches could prove their tactical prowess; now ability in the transfer market is almost equally as cherished. Each international game felt like an occasion; now a coach like Loew is truly tested three or four times every two years.
With clubs, players and agents becoming disproportionately powerful in relation to governing bodies, the battle may already be lost. The most high-profile coaches will see international management as a move into semi-retirement rather than something to be seriously contemplated when in mid-career flow.
A lot more must change before major tournaments are dethroned at the top of our priority list but, for managers, the coup has already taken place. We’ve not quite reached the stage of lions led by donkeys, though those who bemoan the appointment of Sam Allardyce may well disagree.