Like the uninvited guest no one likes, the international break is here to spoil everyone’s fun. It is no good to anyone, but John Nicholson may have a solution…
The new season’s engines have just got fired up, everyone is getting back into the swing of club football and enjoying most of the big clubs being a bit rubbish, when along comes the lumbering, heavy-footed beast that no-one loves to break up the party. Yes, it’s the international break. Boo. Absolutely no-one is looking forward to the break. No-one.
It really is as welcome as the proverbial digestive release in a spacesuit. Every year it’s the same. We get three or four weeks of league football, interrupted by two international games every month until the end of November. Six weeks are taken out of the league programme in the first four months by international breaks. It’s not acceptable.
It’s so damn frustrating, so much so that it almost feels like the season doesn’t get properly going until they’re out of the way and we can get an uninterrupted run at league football.
It didn’t used to be like this. International games, be they qualifiers or friendlies, were usually played on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but league games went ahead as normal at the weekend. There was no international break. Internationals were a seasoning on the steak of the domestic game. Everyone was very happy with that. Then it was deemed that players needed a rest before playing for their country. This happened partly because some countries, more successful than England, operated a break when we didn’t. So someone at the FA thought it might give our lads a better chance if we did it too. Obviously, this was delusion – we lost for many other reasons – and whoever dreamed up the idea was an idiot. Players play twice a week routinely throughout the season. That’s what they’re geared up to do. As long as all countries operate the same policy, there was never a problem. Ironically, that’s what England will be doing anyway, next week, playing San Marino on Saturday and the Swiss on Tuesday, albeit after a week off. Who needs a week off to play San bloody Marino?
And have you noticed the quality of our international footballing performances improve since the break was introduced? Are less players injured? Are players less tired? It’s hard to measure exactly, but it’s hard to believe the answer to any of those questions is yes, not least because so many games are now against sides like San Marino, which offer little in the way of stern competition.
People who don’t understand football see it all as isolated games, one after another, they don’t understand that part of the pleasure of any season is the incessant dynamic. It is the rhythm of week in, week out games that forms the narrative. Taking a break for two weeks just ruins all of that. It devalues the product. It suggests that the international games are, in some way, special and superior. But no-one believes that any more. These qualifiers are obviously, by and large, an inferior football product.
It doesn’t make international football special, quite the opposite – it’s the ugly intruder who is only seen negatively. When it was embedded into each season, it was merely another flavour to the story. It was a pleasant exotic midweek amuse bouche to relieve the meat and gravy of the league weekends. This week we’ll wait until Saturday, then the England game will be dross. It’s not so much an amuse bouche as a slap in the bouche.
But in fairness, it’s not that national games are always dull and tedious – though they are, it is the nature of football to be dull and tedious much of the time – it’s just that isolating them as though they are a revered delicate piece of china, is inappropriate. It will now be two weeks before we pick up the Chelsea and Manchester United are rubbish narrative again, and all the momentum behind that will have been lost. So much of football is the soap opera that orbits around it. It needs constant feeding and the international break is an enforced fasting period.
There’s an obvious solution to this problem. I’d rather we rolled all of the international games into a mini international season of six or seven games played across four or five weeks in May. This would give the end of season a new flavour and it would allow us to properly embrace them and not just see them as an annoying punctuation mark.
They would develop of rhythm and culture all of their own if they were rolled together. Managers wouldn’t have to worry about players being hurt in international duty during the season. They’d not have to worry they’d get tired by all the travelling (poor things). We’d have the domestic season, then the international season, then if it was a tournament year, it’d come right afterwards. Perfect. As it is, we’ll have two weeks off, then four weeks of league games, then another two weeks off, then another month of games, then another two weeks off. It’s awful, no-one likes it and it’s time we put an end to it.