Ask almost any football fan which competition is the biggest in football, and they will answer without hesitation the World Cup. It is the pinnacle of the game, to many – a quadrennial exhibition of the best players and best teams in the game. But after the World Cup, the most revered competition in the game is probably the Champions League, an annual club competition. International football no longer has the draw it once did. Even as a Scotland fan, I think that international football deserves to reclaim its’ place at the top of the game, and there are many ways in which it can do that.
International games at the moment fall into three categories: competitions, qualifiers and friendlies. Qualifiers form the bread and butter of the international game, providing competitive matches over the course of more than a year before competitions. These, for a large majority of countries, are the only competitive games that they will ever play. Only 32 teams in the world qualify for the World Cup each time out of over 200 that enter the qualifying phase.
Perhaps we should look at creating a second-tier competition for some of the teams that don’t qualify, to provide them a shot at some international glory. There are second-tier competitions everywhere for club sides, like the Europa League, so why not for internationals? UEFA are doing something towards making international competitions more inclusive by increasing the number of teams in their flagship EURO competitions from 16 to 24. This means that almost half of the countries in Europe will have an interest in the competition, which I believe is another masterstroke from President Platini. This is exactly the sort of thing that can improve the interest in international football. Although some might argue that the quality of the tournament may be diluted, it does mean that there will be a wider-reaching interest in the competition, that will extend into the latter stages where the best teams will be involved.
Another interesting proposal came from UEFA’s Annual Congress in September, for a UEFA Nations League – where national teams would be placed in divisions to compete, taking the place of international friendlies. It would mean that teams could play against their equals, creating exciting games that are unpredictable, rather than the usual procession of qualifying group games. While an innovative idea, international friendlies are currently the only chance any team has of playing teams from outside their continent, other than the World Cup. We can’t confine European national teams to playing only each other apart from a few games in June every four years. It would defy the increasingly global nature of football.
Although friendlies are a great way of playing teams from other reaches of the world, they are also great opportunities to play against national teams on your doorstep. Last year’s England v Scotland game was a fantastic testament to this. After that amazing game at Wembley in August, many believed it should become a regular occasion again, perhaps along with a revived version of the British Home Championship which was axed in 1984. I’d love to see these ‘derby’ games in international football, as they evoke a great deal of passion and excitement, despite being officially ‘friendlies’. Perhaps FIFA could help formalise these local friendly groups, perhaps creating one in South America between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay amongst others worldwide. These could take place over a few years and provide an interesting alternative to friendlies.
On the whole, I’d like to see more international football in the year. This is unlikely in the game’s current climate, where the club version of the game is dominant and growing, but I think that international football needs more time to grow in popularity. This is because in countries where club sides are good, the national teams are also good; and the only competitive games these great teams are playing are qualifying games against countries that are inferior. Maybe football needs to adopt a similar qualifying process as rugby, by letting the teams that succeed in competitions to qualify automatically for the next edition, and letting the other teams play through qualifying stages to show their merit. This could work alongside the UEFA Nations League idea, by letting these automatically qualifying teams play each other for another piece of silverware. If this competition was as well-received as last year’s Confederations Cup was, it would help the stature of international football greatly. If we added one more international week to the calendar, taking it from five to six in non-competition years, then we’d give international football more of a chance of to win the fans over.
These are just suggestions of ways in which international football could improve and become the most interesting form of the game again. It brings nations together in supporting a common cause, even if they are divided by reasons as trivial as supporting different clubs or as major as religious differences. International football amplifies the loyalty to a club by adding in a patriotic element.Improving International Football