Thank the lord it’s the first international break of the year. The next couple of weeks will be a beautiful release from the Premier League, where almost everyone at some point – in pretty much every discussion – will tell you, ‘it’s all about money’.
But internationals are not. Internationals are an expression of pure competition and football. Even though England, and I’m sure other nations too, are shrouded in so much potentially undesirable sponsorship from ‘official partners’ when it comes to the XI on the pitch, at least a country cannot use spending power to buy its way to a greater chance of success, the way a rich club can. It is just our lot against your lot. And that is such a blessed relief because even when we witness the finest, most exciting Premier League football, many of us can never really forget the competition’s endemic problems.
But for two weeks we can cast off the cloak of discontent that top-flight football so often drapes over us and look towards an untainted football experience as the qualifiers for Euro 2020 take to the pitch.
England find themselves already qualified for at least the play-offs thanks to our success in the Nations League and will play Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo to try and earn automatic qualification.
While many feel the expansion of the number of teams in the European Championships to 24 in 2016 – up from what used to be 16, eight and originally just four – has made a bigger, more flabby tournament, I would disagree, feeling that now more than ever, we need the freedom that international football offers, so the more meaningful games there are, the better. This could be why the Nations League was received so well and why it was such a big success too. The games have such a different feel to them. You don’t have to worry about any off-the-pitch politics of ownership, nor financial doping.
We absolutely need, possibly even crave, the international’s unalloyed nature, where it is the best of one country matched against the best of another and where it is the best organised and managed teams each country has to offer.
In an exciting development, 2020 will be held in cities all over Europe from Dublin in the west to Baku in the east. The semi-finals and finals are being held at Wembley, which does make it hard not to feel very optimistic about England’s chances of winning it.
Because this has also come at a time when Gareth Southgate has made England, if not exactly sexy, then at least pleasing on the eye. Where once, in the not too distant past, England were an embarrassment waiting to happen and worse than that, they were quite often just very boring to watch, today we seem to have so much talent to choose from and all of it is exciting.
It is frightening to think that Sam Allardyce could, indeed should, have still been in charge had he been an entirely different sort of person, the sort of person who wouldn’t greedily seek to exploit his role. We really dodged a bullet there. His presence would have ensured we would not feel positive about England at all this week. He’d have ensured we’d be dreading the next games, in fact. His presence would’ve cast an immodest, monstrous, old-fashioned sulphur-scented shadow over the country. But with Gareth at the helm, we’re a modern, progressive, inclusive, modest and intelligent national side who it is just very easy to feel good about and one which many of us are excited to see take on Czech Republic this week and then Montenegro.
It is an almost mind-blowing change and I’m sure I’m not the only one who never imagined it would happen after so much discontent for so very long. It may have been a happy accident that Southgate ended up in situ, though some of us always knew his qualities from his days at Middlesbrough FC and from watching the U21s, but it is one which was a case of being the right man at the right time.
There are so many unfolding issues. How will Scotland perform in Kazakhstan and San Marino? Can Germany recover from their slump which saw them relegated in the Nations League? Can Italy revive after failing to make the last World Cup? Will Belgium finally fulfil their promise? Holland with four wonderful Ajax players in their squad also seem to be on the up, after their failure to qualify for Russian 2018. And then there are world champions France who should be great, but who just might not be. Add in the chances of the home nations making progress, the always competitive Scandinavian countries, the chance to see Kosovo play as an independent country for the first time in a Euros and the opportunity to see minnows like Gibraltar, Faroe Islands, Malta and Lichtenstein pitting their wits in a tournament for the first time, it all adds up to a whole lot of unknown which will be soooooo much more interesting than many of the Premier League fixtures that follow.
So much more interesting than wondering how many Manchester City will score against Fulham (it’ll be eight, won’t it?), or watching clubs whose seasons are already over, such as Leicester and Bournemouth, fighting it out for a slightly higher but still largely meaningless league position somewhere between 13th and eighth, or listening to pundits and fans who are lost in the fog of the league’s existential crisis, rhetorically asking ‘what are Everton for?’.
We have genuinely never needed the international breaks more. They do unfortunately disrupt the flow of Championship – the league that really should be called ‘Premier’ – and it would be preferable if they were all held over two or three weeks at the end of each season, but right here and now, in mid-March, drinking the sweet, cool, pure upland spring water of international football will be such a refreshing tonic.