I love football: some of my earliest memories are of Real Madrid, of celebrating on the Castellana and at the Cibeles when we won the League in 1996 and the Champions League in 1997. I’ll never forget watching the most recent World Cup either: Spain winning ranks among the greatest sports moments (heck, moments in general) of my life. So as a life-long fan—and by fan, I mean fanático, because I live and die with my teams—it’s hard to say this: international football is ruining football.
What a bold statement! I wept like a baby when Spain won the World Cup, so why would I say something like that? It’s simple: I like good football, and while “good football” is subjective, “good” is a word hardly used to describe international competition.
Think about it like this: international teams take a couple of weeks every few months to train with each other, then play a grueling set of qualification games to participate in tournaments. The players know each other well, certainly, but don’t play enough with each other to know where the other player will be on the pitch at any given moment.
Every definition of “good football” has a base in communication, in knowing your teammates better than you know yourself: when a team can play together, then the team will (most likely) play “good football.” Simply put, the players on a national team don’t play with each other enough to know each other’s tendencies.
It didn’t used to be like this. In the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and even in the early 1980s, the best football was played at the World Cup because the best players were dispersed throughout the world on myriad clubs—Pelé, for example, never played outside of Brazil.
The World Cup became the wonderful spectacle of football, unsurpassed in greatness until the top European clubs—Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Juve, AC Milan, etc.—started acquiring talented foreign players in droves in the late 1980s. Madrid’s quinta del Buitre era featured players like Hugo Sánchez (Mexico) and Bernd Schuster (Germany).
The famous “Bosman ruling,” which gave (European) players the right to navigate the open market at the end of their contracts, only increased the “big” clubs' abilities to acquire talented players (remember Edgar Davids? He left Ajax as a Bosman transfer to AC Milan in 1995).
So, what’s so bad about international football now? The best international teams of the most recent era—2006 Italy, 2010 Spain, 1998-2002 Brazil—can only come close to the level of play of the best club teams. It doesn’t matter what style of football you prefer (defensive, offensive, possession, counter-attacking), clubs play better than international sides: the level of competition that Madrid, Barça, or Man U face is much higher than international teams.
I’d take Villareal over Slovenia any day. Heck, I’d take Villareal over Uruguay!
But what’s worse than all of this is that the international breaks are a major cause for concern for top clubs because players exhaust themselves, don’t train with their teammates, and often pick up bad injuries. Imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo tore his ACL playing for Portugal against Lichtenstein! Not only is the level of international football worse than club competition, it actively worsens the clubs themselves.
I’m not saying that the international game should be abolished, or that it doesn’t matter—it certainly does. What I’m saying is that admirers of good football would do better to watch the great clubs play than the great countries: I’d choose a Real Madrid-Manchester United match over a Spain-England one (if I couldn’t watch both, that is).
The qualification for these international competitions is too grueling, and not really interesting; the World Cup is a wonderful competition (I’ve watched every match for the last three cups), but do we really need such a long, painful qualifying procedure? Should we sacrifice good football for international matches and friendlies that often hurt more than help? Maybe we should devote entire months to the international game—to let players and coaches train together—every year.
Until we find a suitable balance between international and club football, problems like the ones I’ve raised here will still exist. Knowing FIFA, we’ll probably be waiting a long time, so grab a drink and pray that your team doesn’t lose a player to the “FIFA virus.”