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England Needs to Remember How to Love International Football

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterOctober 12, 2016

England fans have fallen out of love with international football.
England fans have fallen out of love with international football.AFP/Getty Images

A visitor from another galaxy could be easily forgiven for thinking that football in its usual form shuts down entirely during the season’s intermittent international windows. It is replaced by some abridged, mutant version of the game so abrasive to our senses that it soils the very memories of the other 35 or so weeks of the year.

This would at least go some way towards explaining the waves of exhaustion and apathy that blow in off of Twitter feeds whenever club football is put on hold for sometimes as much as 13 whole days to dally in a variant of the game that outdates even the 128 year-old Football League by some 16 years.

We feel starved of the excess that has become the norm across two decades of growth in coverage, our Premier League shifted a little from the dead centre of the football universe.

A tag-team of UEFA departments took the decision two years ago to remodel the way these international windows work, partly in response to an anticipated ennui from the established football nations as a bloated European Championship finals quota threatened to turn the routine process of qualifying into an altogether more routine process of qualifying. 

UEFA said on its website in September 2014:

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For the first time qualifying takes place under the new 'Week of Football' concept, in which games are spread out from Thursday to Tuesday, shining the spotlight on more teams on the road to the finals in France.

Moreover, thanks to the Week of Football idea, at least 33 per cent of games will be played on weekends, giving fans a better chance to follow the action on television, in the stadiums and on UEFA.com. In UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying, only 26 matches out of 245 were held on Saturdays or Sundays.

After all, who wants to get the train up to Old Trafford on a Saturday when the alternative is to draw the curtains and hunker down in front of UEFA.com without even having to put on trousers?

Predictably, amid the proclamations and web-based bluster, the footballing imagination in England has stubbornly failed to ignite over the changes. “International football vying with the Checkatrade Trophy now in terms of entertainment and relevance” moaned The Independent’s Mark Ogden on Twitter on Saturday as England’s 2-0 win over Malta crawled to its conclusion.

Mark Ogden @MarkOgden_

International football vying with the Checkatrade Trophy now in terms of entertainment and relevance...

The mood surrounding football here becomes palpably different during these weeks when tournament qualifying forces the Premier League to cede its airtime. In a sense, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy with those who are disillusioned.

International football used to mean the coming together of the very best, to play together and against one another. Young players, new to the international game, would talk in awe about the huge step up in quality, pace and physicality between their clubs and the national team.

Now, though, the Premier League is the ultimate super contest, and such accidents of birth as what passport a player holds cannot stand against the spending power that lets clubs assemble the best talent from 100 countries, not just one.

Barney Ronay @barneyronay

This isn't really a football match

Watching England now fail to satisfy in the requisite degree to keep the country happy during international week, Jonathan Liew from the Telegraph suggested to his Twitter followers on Saturday that, “Instead of watching the football and complaining you could be watching the rugby league and not complaining.”

“This really isn’t a football match” came the wry quip from the Guardian's Barney Ronay as the Three Lions approached half-time with two goals in front of one rather bored-looking Wembley Stadium.

Certainly, England expects, but it has become hard to say exactly what is now expected. It seems it isn’t to be found anywhere in England or elsewhere in Europe during a UEFA Week of Football. Could it be that we just aren't looking hard enough, though?

If England 2-0 Malta really wasn’t a football match, then one really did take place 24 hours later in Skopje, Macedonia.

Italy were 1-0 up against Macedonia when the hosts rallied with a little over half an hour to play, scoring twice in two minutes to take a 2-1 lead and send 19,000 fans inside the Philip II Arena into unprecedented rapture. However, Ciro Immobile hit back with two goals for the visitors, one in the 75th minute, another in the second minute of injury time, as Italy won 3-2.

As the Lazio man rose to head inside goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov’s near post at the end of a frantic match, international football felt, to choose a term from within the framework of this debate, overwhelmingly relevant.

This wasn’t just about a potential giant-killing that nearly came off. Contrary to the lazy hyperbole that tumbles out whenever England are paired in qualifying with a country geographically or culturally remote from our own, the likes of Macedonia take a stake in international football. There are fans, 19,000 of them at least, who invest time, money and heart in the very cause that 90,000 England fans did at Wembley on Saturday.

The myth of the FA Cup draws on the same dynamics as those at work in Skopje to synthesise what the marketing departments call the competition’s magic. In international football, we seem barely able to muster tolerance for it, let alone respect.

There also really was a football match that took place in Shkoder, Albania, on October 6, although here the occasion rather overshadowed a one-sided game in which Kosovo lost their first home World Cup qualifier 6-0 to Croatia.

The strip adjacent to the sold-out Loro Borici Stadium, where Kosovo are playing their games while the two main stadiums back home are renovated, was overrun with 16,000 fans a solid four hours before kick-off, piercing the grey afternoon drizzle with sparks from half a dozen Catherine Wheels and clogging the air with plumes of blue-and-yellow smoke.

Raised By War, Stronger Than Fear. Kosovo fans unfurl a banner against Croatia
Raised By War, Stronger Than Fear. Kosovo fans unfurl a banner against CroatiaRobert O'Connor

As the national anthem played prior to kick-off, a huge banner the height of the terrace was unfurled; Raised By War, Stronger Than Fear, in reference to the civil war that devastated the country at the end of the last century.

Football in Kosovo should not be defined by the historical tragedies visited on its people, nor vice-versa; to do so is to pander to the needlessly and insensitively theatrical. But this young republic has fought hard for the privilege to play international football, and it was embraced with utmost feeling. It feels crude that any fans in Europe should treat their own team’s participation with such contempt.

Jonathan Liew @jonathanliew

Just think, instead of watching the football and complaining you could be watching the rugby league and not complaining

International football is by its very definition a collective endeavour, where cooperation exists in a parallel relationship to competition. The likes of Iceland and Albania have absorbed so much from their larger, more successful neighbours in Europe, to the extent that they can now compete alongside and even topple them.

In an age where solidarity between cultures feels precious and fragile, some will see this as a great opportunity for Europe and for football, others as a threat.

It’s hard to see how England can ever be satisfied with their returns while we continue to see international football as an arena in which we are disproportionately significant, unaccountably central. Perhaps if domestic broadcasters were more willing to provide coverage of football from around the continent during international weeks, fans here would have their horizons widened to include some of the wonderful stories that unfold in Skopje, Shkoder and elsewhere each season.

Or maybe nobody would bother. There will always be another England game to enjoy, after all.

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