Perhaps it’s the passing of time, or the perpetual failure of the national team but international football seems to hold little appeal for supporters of all club denominations. So much that the enforced two week break from the Premier League hurly burly is the entertainment equivalent of Japanese water torture.
Somehow it didn’t used to be this way, with the glamour of playing international football every schoolboy’s fantasy. Memories of the World Cup in far flung places, TV secretly on late at night, with crackling commentary and exotic fans abound.
Yet today, amid the globalised nature of the modern club game, with live matches available at the touch of a mouse almost round-the-clock, the international game takes a distinctly back seat. After all, if the world’s best habitually gravitate towards the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and increasingly the Bundesliga, what purpose does the international game truly serve?
In the Premier League, for example, just 37 per cent of players are English. That is not to evoke the now clichéd argument about England’s international demise but to emphasise the globalised nature of the domestic game. To all intents and purposes any meeting of the Premier League’s upper echelons is international football in a domestic setting.
Moreover, international football is now inferior in many ways to the fare served weekly in the Champions League, even if homogenised tactical patterns now universally dominate Europe’s premier competition. Tactically, technically and certainly in terms of entertainment, last season’s Champions League scored more highly than the World Cup in South Africa.
Indeed, the international game – and especially the World Cup this summer – for the first time has suffered from homogeneity. The clash of cultures once associated with South American, Asian, and African football – as opposed to European – gave way to the preponderance of the 4-2-3-1 system and defensive possession-based tactics in South Africa. Without its distinctness the international game serves as little more than an exercise in patriotism.
If international football is at threat from a lack of diversity and globalised media coverasge, then increasingly club sides are waging a war on their big brother too. Witness recent changes to the international calendar in the move to a Friday-Tuesday double header that is designed solely to assuage club managers.
Then there is also an ongoing case in which Europe’s leading clubs seek to extract greater compensation from international associations for injured players. Soon leading players from smaller associations may – literally – be priced out of international fixtures for fear of injury.
Powerful club sides are also seeking the end to both June and August international friendlies. Within five years it is not unreasonable to assume the only international football available will be competitive, further reducing the diversity in the international game.
Perhaps fans too have become tired even of live international football, with less than 50,000 tickets reportedly sold for tomorrow night’s Euro2014 England qualifier against Montenegro. With a catchment area of 45 million potential fans, the national team – let alone Wembley’s permanently worrisome bean-counters – should expect better.
Certainly the England team’s connection with supporters outside the capital is not aided by the FA’s permanent marriage to Wembey but increasingly the governing body has resorted to cheap ticket offers to fill Wembley’s vast array of seats.
If the traditional England support has come from the lower-leagues, then for Premier League club fans such as those at Manchester United international week is an additionally painful period. England’s match on Tuesday night will feature just two United players – Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand – with the best outcome no further injury to either player.
Of course, United fans’ relationship with the national team is hardly helped by the antipathy with which the club’s players are often received. The mindless reaction of England fans to David Beckham’s red card in 1998, for example, was compounded by the lack of support show for Rooney after his disappointing World Cup this summer.
Instead, United supporters will nerdily check on the club’s players in matches around the globe. This is merely feeding on scraps though, with the real feast returning when United take on West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford next Saturday.