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Sport: The Tactical Foul – The Remarkably Useless Nature of Friendly International Games

Posted February 8, 2013 by Rú Hickson in Sport

Villa Park, 30th of September 2012. Aston Villa vs West Brom. Local rivalry. High stakes. 70 minutes have passed and the scores are tied. The home side were anxious of the deadlock, wary of not yet capitalising on the fact that all the momentum was on their side. Villa’s Marc Albrighton receives the ball on the right side of midfield and dashes up the wing like a fighter jet about to take flight from a carrier. Excitement gathers and a rapid roar crescendos around the stadium as he speeds past two opposition defenders, making space for himself as he eyes up the strikers and supporting midfielders entering the penalty area, veins pressing through necks, lactic acid meandering between muscles; the effort to get in the perfect offensive positions is enormous.

West Brom are outnumbered and overwhelmed – a half-decent cross will see them take the lead. Albrighton swings his boot through the ball, which promptly flies out of the ground. This is the umpteenth time a great chance has been wasted in the match. The camera perfectly captures 8,000 or so Villa fans throwing their arms into the air in agony. The sense of disgust is palatable. The frustration secreting through television screens. You’d swear you could hear cries reminiscent of ‘-‘uckin’ hell!’ from the King of the Sheep competition in Father Ted, or perhaps the exasperated ‘ohhh yeah the taxes!’ moan from the Simpsons when the teachers plan to go on strike.

Such mild stress is enviable to football fans everywhere when they see the first international break of the season smash the otherwise fluid and beautiful continuity of the European domestic leagues, crippling one’s enjoyment of the season before it has even begun. Bear in mind that in football, unlike physics, energy and momentum are not conserved.

No one likes international friendlies. They count for nothing, they contribute nothing, they mean nothing.

Let’s be honest with each other: no one likes international friendlies. They count for nothing, they contribute nothing, they mean nothing, bar a bunch of ‘caps’ for loyal, eager players, and a risk of unnecessary injury. Imagine a team spending a quarter of their transfer budget on a player, only to have him pick up a cruciate ligament injury in a match that, initially and ultimately, meant nothing. It’s horrifying and it’s happened. It’s also why a lot of bigger clubs’ key players pick up mysterious injuries in the days leading up to international teams’ squad announcements.

Wednesday night saw Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan and Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark (a participant from the aforementioned West Brom game) score their first goals for Ireland in a 2-0 victory over Poland, but come the end of their careers, neither is going to be bragging about that. Hoolahan is a midfield playmaker who achieved back-to-back promotions with his team, and Clark is a promising prospect at a club who have never been relegated from the Premier League – you’d imagine both players will have more prestigious feathers in their cap to talk about before they hang up their playing boots for the last time, than their first goals for Ireland on a night that was less notable for football than for the sizable amount of public urination and vomitus adorning Bath Avenue.

There is the school of thought that international friendlies are a necessary evil to provide essential practice for a team in the run-up to a major competition, or to allow managers to experiment with new styles and formations, but the truth is international football is more dependant on player calibre than practice. You can bet your house that Spain will be in the final of the next World Cup and will very likely win it, but no amount of exhibition matches would see a team like Ireland get close to that. Spain, by the way, were embarrassed in friendly matches against Argentina and Portugal shortly after winning the 2010 World Cup, as well as nearly succumbing to Scotland – a team located more than 50 (now more than 70) places below them in the official FIFA rankings at the time – at Hampden. That’s the same Spanish team that have won the last 3 major international tournaments they’ve entered, barring the Confederations cup which, you may have guessed, is a ‘friendly’ competition.

Add the 13 non-competitive international games Holland played in the last 12 months, and you have one of the best players in the world wasting his time for just under 1/5th of the year.

Take Robin van Persie – a top player everyone wants to see play who is eligible to participate in 5 club competitions a year (including the World Club Cup should Manchester United win the Champions League). If it’s in a year with an International tournament (World Cup in Brazil in 2014) the total amount of games he could conceivably play if United and Holland win all of their competitions is 38 Premier League, 6 League Cup, 7 FA Cup, 13 Champions League, 2 Club World Cup games, 7 World Cup matches, or 73 in total. Then add the 13 non-competitive international games Holland played in the last 12 months and you have one of the best players in the world wasting his time for just under 1/5th of the year, which is, frankly, outrageous.

One would hope that it’s only a matter of time before non-important national team games are scotched, though it’s highly unlikely given FIFA’s precedent (and president) for improving international relations between countries, players and fans who really couldn’t give a toss. A reduced number of games worldwide would result in a higher average standard of football, leaving us with only Marc Albrighton’s useless crossing ability to whinge about.

About the Author

Rú Hickson

Despite initial wealth, Ru bankrupted himself by acquiring every existing second-hand copy of Duke Nukem Forever and placing it in a pile he uses for the express purposes of urinating onto and crying over in an unhealthy, but surprisingly therapeutic, downward spiral.

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