There’s literally a pandemic going on…
Why did we need this international break? It is a very simple question.
Now, do not get me wrong, I am not one of those people who bashes international football during every international break. I love international football; it offers a certain spectacle, a certain color and flair that the domestic game does not (even though, I will admit, the quality of play is often not at the same level as club football). Yes, being able to regularly watch talented France teams helps me in that regard, but there is joy in watching nations like Italy, Germany, Algeria, and Morocco rebuild around a young, talented, exciting core, and there is a joy in watching the Dominik Szoboszlais or the David Marshalls of the world become national heroes.
But now? At this specific time? Did we really need to do this? In the middle of a global pandemic that has impacted millions of lives? During a congested season that requires players to play more matches than ever before while having a significantly shortened preseason? Was this necessary?
I understand the need for qualifiers and playoffs. Ideally, we all want the European Championships and African Cup of Nations to go on without a hitch during their respective rescheduled times. Will that happen? Who knows, but I do agree that it is important to do everything reasonable and within our power to make sure those competitions can still go on. The Euros play off matches should have been played, and it is possible that, without other national teams playing, UEFA could have made that process much safer by forcing those playoff matches into a bubble, similar to how the Champions League was handled, to ensure there were no positive tests. The African Cup of Nations qualifiers would be more difficult to put in a bubble, but again, I am more willing to accept that those are matches that needed to be played. But these random friendlies? The Nations League? Did we really need to see France play Finland, or England play Republic of Ireland, or the United States play Panama? The Nations League match ups were cool, to be fair, but does anyone really care about the Nations League? Was this at all necessary?
I am not unique or alone in voicing criticisms of this international break, but it is just incredibly frustrating as a football fan to see FIFA, UEFA, CAF, and others insisting on carrying out this international break during a global pandemic, creating unnecessary amounts of intercontinental and international travel that only heightens the exposure and spread of COVID-19 to players. Luis Suárez, Mohamed Salah, and Alex Telles are among the players who tested positive for COVID during this international break, leaving their teams with serious issues going into major matches. It was the last international break where Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, leaving Juventus without their star man for several crucial matches, including their loss to Barcelona in the Champions League. And who knows if this is the extent of it. Irish midfielder Alan Browne tested positive after playing the full 90 minutes for Republic of Ireland against England, who then traveled and played Belgium several days later and will play Iceland in two days. How has the virus spread from that match? We have no idea. Matt Doherty, Browne’s Ireland teammate who did play against England, has since tested positive, though it is unclear whether the two events are connected. However, the fact that this is even a remote possibility over two matches that do not mean anything shows how incredibly irresponsible it was holding these matches in the first place.
While the spread of COVID is definitely the most important reason against holding international matches at the present moment, the congestion of the fixture schedule caused by the international break also impacts the health of footballers in another way. Due to the impact that COVID had on last season, the Champions League and Europa League, as well as the need to fit this full season into a condensed window to fit in the Euros, the players have not had enough of a preseason or an offseason to fully rest their bodies. The condensing of this season meant that, in the last month and a half, we have had to fit in weekly league matches, cup matches, European matches, and a smattering of international break matches as well. Putting a significant toll on players’ bodies without giving them enough rest and recovery time will, naturally, lead to an increase in injuries. We are now seeing the results of that. While the headlines have seemingly focused on Liverpool, who did add Joe Gomez, Jordan Henderson, and Andrew Robertson to their injury list, this plague of injuries has seemingly impacted several teams across the continent. Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could be out due to injury, and so could Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Stefan Savić, Kieran Trippier, and Héctor Herrera. Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Allan Marques both got injured as well. Nathan Aké, Christian Pulisic, Hans Hateboer, Corentin Tolisso, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, and Raheem Sterling are also among the names who picked up injuries during this break. With some important matches coming up in the next few weeks, this could dramatically change the outcomes of league seasons.
And what was this all for? I get that national team managers deserve time to work with their teams ahead of major continental competitions, and that is fair. Teams need to figure out who is and is not on the plane for the Euros/Copa America/AFCON at the end of the season, and some breakthrough talents deserve their first chance with the national team. Without these international breaks, Eduardo Camavinga would not have gotten his deserved chance with France, for example. However, I find it hard to believe that national teams need to play this often with this many fairly pointless friendlies against not great competition (I know France lost to Finland but this is valid otherwise) in order to figure out their best team. At this point, the more these national teams play, the worse off they could be for their continental competitions.
But, of course, just as it does with much of football at all levels, money plays a significant role in international break scheduling. This was put on display for this break, when England scheduled a very weird international friendly with New Zealand in order to fulfill a TV contract. When New Zealand bailed on the match due to COVID, England decided to schedule another random and weird friendly against Ireland in its place instead of giving their players a break. Money and TV contracts are likely the reasoning behind many nations scheduling friendlies, especially now, instead of resting players. The UEFA Nations League was itself a creation not out of necessity, but out of a desire for more lucrative international fixtures. I am not the biggest opponent of the Nations League, as I do think making the top international sides face each other more often, as well as allowing “lower tier” international sides to face teams more on their level instead of being the punching bag for the continent’s elite sides, allows for more exciting matches and an overall more interesting and enjoyable international break. There is no doubt, however, that it was done for money and not for any sporting reason. The real issue I have with the competition is UEFA’s desire to not move the fixtures from this season, knowing that the Euros will still be next summer and the season needs to be condensed in order to fit in continental competitions and account for the delayed end to last season. While UEFA might claim a desire to “preserve the new competition in its infant stages”, it is clear that this is not a major priority in the eyes of fans and media. Should this edition of the Nations League be moved or called off entirely, I do not think anyone would really be angry about it. In fact, it would likely help UEFA in the long run by preserving a better product for the Euros next summer, knowing fewer matches will help to reduce the major injuries and ensure that the best players will be playing in the Euros. UEFA’s insistence to continue shows their priority rests completely in their bottom line. Knowing this Euros could be without fans, they might have felt the need to continue the Nations League in order to pad potential losses with increased TV revenue from the high-tier matches in the competition. At the end of the day, everything in football revolves around money, and this feels like it is the case.
There is no reason for UEFA or CONMEBOL or CAF or FIFA to listen to me, some random guy with a blog, but please, football powers, listen to the concerns of the players and managers. Take a break with the unnecessary friendlies and Nations League nonsense. This season is already going to take a toll on players, and there is no need to make it worse. If you want as good of a product as possible on display at the Euros, Copa America, and African Cup of Nations, give the players the rest that they need and ensure they are safe during this pandemic. Do the responsible thing. None of these changes have to be permanent, but it is important for all involved this season.
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