It’s that age-old question: ‘What’s more important football-wise, club or country?’ The answer initially given was probably highly patriotic, and began an obsession with international football’s premier competitions that only in the modern era has first started to dwindle.
Nowadays, most fans would say their club side matters much more to them than their national team. Elite players are beginning to buy into that now too. It’s been a sad old run of things for the international game these past few decades. Friendlies have, predictably, seen a much slower tempo to matches and have distinctly flattened their competitive edge. Club football is a closer game. Closer — given the quality of football played — is invariably better.
But UEFA’s and CONCACAF’s smart decisions to create the ‘Nations League’ have all-but-eradicated friendly internationals in both the European and North American continents. That can only be a good thing. And, recalling England’s tense victories over Spain and Croatia two autumns ago, it has already shown to be so.
The final Euro 2020 qualifiers swiftly followed the Three Lions’ third-place finish in the inaugural edition of the Nations League. Yes, they were still competitive internationals, but England suddenly went from playing against Switzerland and the Dutch to facing Montenegro and Bulgaria. Easy pickings for a group of players Gareth Southgate inherited from the ignominy of Iceland in 2016, and swiftly moulded and tightened into a side that have now spent 22 consecutive months among the world’s top five ranked teams.
A straightforward campaign — full of handsome England wins — was wrapped up by victory in Kosovo, where England’s players were greeted lovingly by Kosovo’s thankful citizens. A nod to the country’s war-torn past, and the part Britain had to play. Mason Mount turned a 3-0 win into a 4-0 rout in stoppage time, pouncing on a lax mistake at the back to slot home his maiden international goal.
Somewhere on the other side of the world, a new strain of the common coronavirus quickly became an epidemic. When it became bored of that title, Covid-19 was named a global pandemic. It was all a bit Middle Ages. Society, one country at a time, was switched off at incalculable cost, seemingly at just the push of a button. Sport counts as part of society, so it had to go.
As footballers and fans and pundits all flicked through their diaries at which brilliant fixtures, tournaments and events may be lost in time, the first dates slashed were the March international friendlies. No Wembley meetings with Denmark and Italy for England. Too dangerous. Too irresponsible. Way too premature.
The June friendlies were next. Then the big two, which had dominated headlines and speculation for weeks already. The Olympic Games were rescheduled by a year, as was England’s greatest chance at lifting men’s football silverware in a very long time indeed. Euro 2020 was pushed back a year in response to the outbreak.
Just five days into what would have been Euro 2020 under normal circumstances, footballers came out of their training bubbles and graced stadium pitches for the first time in over three months. The Premier League was back. And still, England weren’t.
So, as England’s first international in 293 days beckons in less than a week’s time, are Southgate, The FA and everyone involved with the Three Lions allowed to feel marginalised and pushed out by the rowdier, headline-grabbing world of club football? Is the writing on the wall; has international football been ignored and disregarded here?
The honest answer is no. The cancellation of March’s international friendlies was inevitable. Every citizen in the UK — and, yes, that even includes footballers — was entering an enforced lockdown. The matches had to go.
The European Championships were not cancelled to make way for the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Champions League. It wasn’t like that. The season had to resume in some form, and the domestic campaign was far enough underway that it simply had to be completed. Under a cram-packed schedule like never before, eventually it was.
UEFA postponed Euro 2020 because it is the organisation’s chief source of income. To play the competition this summer behind closed doors was in nobody’s best interests. Next summer — touch wood — will provide two things that a 2020 edition was never going to fulfil under the circumstances: a lot of money for UEFA, and a lot of atmosphere — to be enjoyed by all parties involved. Matches behind closed doors — in case you hadn’t heard — do not provide atmosphere.
Pre-tournament preparation games are now the only friendly internationals that remain in the European football calendar, following the introduction of the Nations League. Their cancellation in March and June was understandable and inevitable. Euro 2020, by contrast, was not axed because of its diminishing significance. It was rescheduled because of the importance and novelty of major international tournaments.
If anything, the fact England haven’t played in ten months is a very healthy sign indeed. International football may not be on everyone’s minds all of the time. But it certainly isn’t dying. The last few months have merely seen it preserved for when the time is right. It remains powerful, emotional and relevant to fans and players alike. It is timeless.
All Photos: Getty Images