My earliest memories of international football were the old home international matches in the 1970s.
The highlight of these was always the England v Scotland match, whether played at Hampden Park or Wembley, it always had that added spice given that most of the Scotland team played for English clubs.
You have to remember that in the 70s the only live football on TV was the FA Cup final, the World Cup or European Championships and the occasional England match. Even the League Cup final was not televised live until, I think, 1984.
That made International football special. That made it an event. A trip to the newsagents for an extra bag of sweets, a bit of bonding time with Dad, two hours being completely absorbed in a game of football before dashing out into the garden or to the park to re-enact it all. Not only that, only a select band of elite players made it to the pinnacle that was playing for England in those days.
With live club football so marginalised on TV it is hard for people born after 1980 to comprehend that this really used to be the case.
Live club football gradually inched its way into our lives starting with games on BBC and ITV on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, the televising of FA Cup matches other than the final, culminating of course in the creation of the Premier League and the leviathan that is Sky Sports.
Now we have live football on virtually every night of the week. Premier League, Championship, European club football, Women’s football, Under-23 football. It won’t be long before we can see The Dog & Duck v The Golden Lion on Sky Pub Football TV.
It’s all a bit too much now.
This explosion in televised football has coincided with a massive expansion in FIFA membership, partly due to the breakup of larger countries such as the old USSR and Yugoslavia but also due to the number of countries getting good at football wanting to buy a ticket to the main events. That means more qualification matches for international games, more live TV and more strain on the already heaving schedules.
Ironically, this strain has already lead to there being less top flight club football, with the Premier League now consisting of 20 clubs instead of 22. But even so, we still find we have to suffer three or four blank weekends a year to allow for international qualifiers to be shoehorned in.
The expansion of international football has coincided with the finances of the clubs going up through the roof. I think international football peaked in importance around the time of Italia 90 and Gazza’s tears. Since then the money in club football has gone up and interest in international football has gone down.
I’m as guilty as anyone – I love to watch England once they get past the group stages of a major tournament but up to that point it’s just a major ball-ache. Any why is that the case? Mainly because it interferes with the club schedule and puts your players at risk when they are not actually representing your club.
We always bang on about players not being picked for England but when they are, we then fret about them getting injured. But the biggest gripe is just the fact that we have to give up a Saturday match to allow these largely insipid, dull, and frankly boring games to take place.
I remember back in the 70s and 80s if West Ham got knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round there was always a blank on fourth round Saturday. It was horrible. Or when the first division was briefly composed of 21 clubs, one team missed out every week. Absolute torture.
There is no solution. Presumably we all agree that England should take part in the World Cup and the European Championships so therefore they need to play qualification matches. And they need to play lots of qualification matches.
Maybe a mini tournament among the smaller teams to eliminate them before the group stages would help but why shouldn’t Gibraltar get their chance against England, Germany, Spain or France?
We could just play through and say that teams have to put out whoever they have left. But I think that would provide even more dis-incentive for players to want to play for their country. There are very few who seem genuinely proud or thrilled at the prospect, because let’s face it, every Tom, Dick and Harry Kane gets a cap now anyway.
The bottom line is no-one really cares about international matches until the quarter-finals, and most people would now rather see their club win something than their country.
The saturated levels of football coverage also mean that when you take it away it hurts more. You just have to suck it up and find something else to do!
International breaks are, at least, planned in advance, we know they are coming. So we can make other arrangements.
If it has to be football, there are local non-league teams and professional Women’s teams crying out for our support. BBM