International football is stupid

Lars Baron

It takes us away from the good football, makes the good football worse and turns people into scary cult members.

For some fans, the current international break means life or death. The matches played out over the next two weeks will result in a place in Brazil next summer — a glorious achievement in and of itself — or an extended, embarrassing holiday at season's end.

But for most, the break is unwelcome. Across Europe, domestic football is clicking into gear. The Champions League group stages are reaching their climax, clubs are viciously jockeying for table position, and the football is starting to get good. Unless you're watching Manchester United or Chelsea, anyway. And now we have two weeks of internationals. Worse, mostly meaningless internationals.

This unfortunate situation has unhappy consequences:

It's difficult to imagine a more depressing tweet flashing across one's feed, masquerading as news. 'Questionably competent football manager trains questionably competent football team - WATCH LIVE!' doesn't really strike me as anything that might arouse anything approximating an emotion even from those directly involved. And yet at least some of us are supposed to care, presumably because it's international football and must be respected.

That line of thinking is fair enough, I suppose, but it overlooks a couple of key points. The first is that international football is bad. The second is that it's kind of frightening. And the third is that it mostly doesn't matter.

The quality argument should be obvious. When football was beginning to emerge, it wasn't yet a truly coherent team sport. Gathering the most talented individuals from around the country and pitting them against the hated neighbours would have been an excellent way to improve both the quality of the games and the narrative behind them.

As the decades have whizzed by, however, football has evolved from a game focused on some meatheaded combination of athleticism and bravery into a more technical, tactical game. Team dynamics matter far more than individual players do. As anyone who's ever considered making an attempt at assembling a "team of the year" (or studied the Real Madrid Galacticos) will tell you, it's impossible to slap together a side of the best players around and assume that they'll actually be able to play together.

Clubs have the luxury of spending all year working on detailed tactics and combinations. Players have time to bond, on and off the pitch. Unless you have a side like Spain, who have a core for whom playing alongside one another is second nature, the furious pace of international football preparations (ironic, considering the pace of play) doesn't allow for such decadence.

This prejudices the international game toward defensive play, which is inherently easier to implement than a more intricate attacking game. Combine that pressure with the risk aversion that managers gravitate toward in tournament matches, and you have a recipe for fantastically dull football. It's an inescapable conundrum — and we haven't even mentioned the fact that accidents of birth (or bureaucracy) contributing to the makeup of a team leads us to such abominations as sides that feature both Jonas Gutierrez and Lionel Messi.

International football is also a little bit creepy, at least from some perspectives. Granted, support of any kind is strange, when you get right down to it, but international football unites standard fan tribalism with an even more powerful force: Patriotism*.

*It might sound a little vulgar to be freaked out by patriotism and its extended family so soon after Remembrance Day, but on the other side of the argument live these people. I have good taste in my corner, at least.

Being proud of where you come from is hardly a negative thing. I might even be proud of my origins, if I hadn't originated in Milton Keynes. But the flip side of that emotion — and it's not ubiquitous, simply very common — is antagonism towards everyone else.

On any given weekend, you can easily find ample demonstration of the passion with which supporters can deploy in despising someone else for the sin of wearing the wrong shirt. When you add some entrenched historical and cultural divides to the mix (hi Glasgow!), then things can get very, very ugly.

The 100th anniversary for Archduke Franz Ferdinand's death will occur during the planet's most garish tribute to nationalism. Nationalism makes this merry farce go round. We watch the World Cup in hopes that our country will triumph, at everyone else's (preferably embarrassing) expense.

And the worst part is that they won't. If England are any guide, the way most teams go home from big tournaments is in disgrace. For all but very few countries, the whole buildup to the World Cup will have been in vain. They won't get as far as they hoped, the coach will be sacked, and the qualifying campaign will begin anew. They might as well have been playing friendlies the whole time. At least those tend to be more fun.

International football, then is a) bad, b) morally dubious and c) mostly irrelevant and disappointing. But I'll be watching the friendlies and the playoffs anyway, because no matter how much I dislike it, I still can't tear myself away.

I did, however, give the Martin O'Neill's training session a miss.

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