Internationals have provided football with its most enduring images, renowned heroes and coherent narratives. Even limiting ourselves to the exploits of the old home nations of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, we have stories of Puskas and Nándor Hidegkuti educating England, the recording of Ken Wolfstenholme's zeitgeist capturing commentary, photos of broken crossbars at Wembley, lamentations over a 1958 John Charles' injury and this glorious disallowed goal.
Increasingly, though, International football has become peripheral.
Such has been the rise of the club game, and the consequent centralization of power at a handful of elite clubs, that the Champions League is now the pinnacle of footballing excellence.
Moreover, now that tactics is a thing that everybody does (instead of a baton of innovation, metaphorically passed from visionary to rebel to visionary while the pyramid slowly rotates) the synergetic confluence of a great generation with sheer luck is no longer the guarantor of International glory (or in the case of The Netherlands, glorious failure) that it once was. Now, Greece can win International tournaments, the best player of all time can ‘be rubbish at the World Cup' (I think Messi was quite good at the World Cup, but unless this post really goes viral in a big way history will remember otherwise) and the golden generation can get knocked out in successive quarter finals.
As a result of this, you'd probably have to fancy a decent club side to beat an exceptional International one. In all probability, the back-line that Brasil throw together every few months would be no match for Stoke's choreographed cacophony of aerial assaults. While Spain (who have a huge advantage over the rest, being 7/11ths of Barcelona) would almost certainly have too much for Bolton, they would likely, having managed only seven goals in their eight World Cup matches, struggle to overcome Manchester United's well-drilled unit.
Even it wasn't the case, though, that the relative standard of International football had diminished, it would still be anachronistic.
‘Nationality' is a much more fluid construct today than it was in 1886, when the International Football Association Board. An interesting story in itself, IFAB, composed of the FAs of the four nations, this body (in an anachronism that proves my point) still controls half of the votes required to change the rules of football.
In an age in which migrant workers are (for the most part) able to travel freely between EU states, the notion of separating footballers into units of nationality seems archaic.
The recent scandal surrounding the French FA's alleged quota system (reputedly designed to limit the number of ‘blacks' representing the national team) bears this out, as does the ludicrous hierarchical system amongst the home nations themselves whereby players not good enough for England defect to Scotland and Wales and those who regard themselves as too good for Northern Ireland (or in Glasgow born James McCarthy's case, Scotland) instead represent the Republic.
Both of these cases seem inevitable. France still has problems with the integration of migrants from its former colonies in Africa, while the home nations are not, technically speaking, nations at all.
International football at best, then, papers over the cracks; at worst, it puts a microscope over them.
Hence the reason right thinking Bulgarians (and their manager Lothar Matthaus) are embarrassed by the inevitable depiction of their country as populated by ignorant, monkey-imitating Neanderthals.
George Orwell wrote of International football in 1944 that:
There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige*.
Between then and now, the International game has had its halcyon period. Post-heyday, with nationalism a confused mess International football seems again like a lunatic habit, and an inferior one too.
Nonetheless, this isn't a piece calling for the absolute abandonment of International football. In spite of myself I still like watching Scotland play, and in spite of FIFA I still love the World Cup. This is, instead, a piece suggesting that we reevaluate what it means. For both players and fans, International football should be a privilege and not a right, and if it's a chore then there's no point in it at all.
* 'The Sporting Spirit'