Players, fans and the Nations League all caught in the grim Qatar World Cup fall-out

Date published: Wednesday 8th June 2022 3:12 - Dave Tickner

Nico Schlotterbeck reacts during the 1-1 Nations League draw between Germany and England

Actual Germany played Actual England in a theoretically competitive international football match on a midsummer evening and nobody really cared. The football calendar is broken.


June 7 is a date that will echo through history for witnessing some truly iconic England moments.

On June 7 1970, Gordon Banks made that save to deny Pele in one of the greatest World Cup group games.

On June 7 2002, David Beckham slammed home a penalty to give England an improbable 1-0 win over Argentina and exorcise the demons of four years before.

On June 7 2010, Chico released It’s England Time, which failed to reach the top 75 of the UK singles chart.

And now, June 7 2022: Harry Kane scores his 50th international goal to earn England a 1-1 draw with the old enemy Germany. Huge. Arguably bigger even than Chico.

Except nobody cares. We didn’t even get any mails about it. Not even ones calling him Parry Pane or asking how the f*** offside works now or pointing out that – and you might not realise this – he hasn’t won any trophies.

Now I’m speaking here as a fan of the Nations League. Initial scepticism has given way to grudging approval. It has made international football less dull, and fair play to it for that. It is better than interminable substitute-laden friendlies and far better than the foregone conclusions that pass for a hefty chunk of ‘competitive’ qualification games.

But it’s still not quite a major tournament. And that’s what should be happening right now. We should be watching a World Cup in the summer months like nature intended. Instead, we’re watching exhausted players who have just been through three uniquely challenging years slog their way through four Nations League games in 12 days. Four games, UEFA? Four? That’s insane.

As a result, we’re now left with the Nations League – which was perfectly decent, more so than pretty much anyone expected – screwed over as well. These are now little more than friendlies themselves. Kevin De Bruyne admitted he’s not much bothered, and why should he be? You can be sure he’s not alone. Both Germany and England made wholesale changes for squad management reasons between the first and second games of this unwanted June slog.

FIFA have already ruined the World Cup in multiple ways with the Qatar farce and this particular gripe is without doubt the most first-world problem of all the problems, but still. A World Cup in November and December is just not going to be as good as one in mid-summer. The fan parks and beer gardens will compete for space with German Christmas markets and that’s the last thing you want.

Sure, once it comes around we’ll all get into it and that is, as ever, what the football authorities rely on. Football fans are football fans and we’re hopelessly addicted. But it’s wrong and it’s ruined this summer.

Kane praised by Trippier

But at least an empty summer would have given everyone some time off. Your De Bruynes and Van Dijks and the Harry Kanes of this world have a potentially insane workload over the next year with an early pre-season and hectic first half of the season to make room for that absurd winter World Cup.

Why do that, though, when you could instead shoehorn another four games into an insanely tight two-week period? Sure, lots of players will get injured and the football will be of largely questionable quality and significance but tits to all that; there’s money to be made.

Cramming these games in to the already-bloated schedule has now turned the Nations League into the one thing it was specifically created to replace: friendlies. Germany against England managed to contain a modicum of effort because it was Germany against England, and the German pressing game for the first hour was notably impressive and effective. But we’ll never truly know whether they could have sustained it for 90 minutes because they correctly didn’t attempt that. They had their proof of concept, but they’ve still got two more games to play.

It ended up feeling very Community Shield. Not quite a friendly, not quite a competitive game. Ultimately, it felt less important and significant and competitive than actual official friendlies between the teams have done in the recent past.

It obviously doesn’t help that England have been below their best in these games, spending Tuesday evening wandering around Munich like a misjudged third day of a stag do. That was until the introduction of Jack Grealish, who has spent the last fortnight on an actual stag do, so maybe that’s the mistake.

The undeniable truth is that England’s soporific performances, while disappointing, are also entirely understandable. Recent antics aside, it’s no great surprise that it was someone like Grealish – an obviously wonderful footballer who started barely half of Manchester City’s 50 Premier League and Champions League games last season – who was able to make some difference.

But it tells us little, really. Tired players putting in tired performances in a competition that can never matter enough to justify major tournament fixture frequency at major tournament time. All you do is emphasise its inadequacy in comparison.

The football calendar has long been a joke, and through no fault of anybody it was obviously made worse by Covid. But for it to reach a point where an England striker scoring a landmark goal in a midsummer clash with Germany causes barely a ripple is really quite startling mismanagement.

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