It's that time again, friends and soccerists. The headlong rush of the season has once more been sent tumbling by the outstretched foot of the international week. Now, it's been a while — in fact, it's been about four months, in which time Brendan Rodgers has gone from idiot to genius and back again — and so we wouldn't blame you if, in the intervening time, you've completely forgotten what's going on in the international arena. Hell, we certainly have.
So to help you recalibrate your brain from club to country, here's a quick catchup of the state of play around the world, and a few games that you might want to keep half an eye on.
Euro 2016 Qualifying
A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of an expanded European Championships. France 2016 will be contested by 24 teams, not far off from half the continent, and many a talking head has expressed concern that the tournament might end up somewhat bloated as a result.
But! Whatever happens at the time, the expansion seems to have injected new life into the qualification process. Among the teams currently sitting on top of their qualifying groups are Israel, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Austria and Denmark ... the usual suspects, these are not. It's early days, of course, and with two qualifying by right from every group of five or six, then another team going into the playoffs, none of the aristocracy are in mortal danger. Yet.
So what's been happening? Well, the departure of Louis van Gaal appears to have knocked the Netherlands for something of a loop: the World Cup semifinalists have contrived to lose two of their four qualifiers so far, away against the Czech Republic and Iceland. Manager Guus Hiddink vowed to resign if they lost their last game against Latvia; they won handsomely, but they're still sitting third in Group A, and they face Turkey on Saturday.
Perhaps the most peculiar-looking group is Group B; were it not for the presence of Andorra at the bottom of the table, one might assume it were upside down. World Cup qualifiers Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina sit in fourth and fifth, below Cyprus, while Gareth Bale's mighty Wales lurk in second behind surprise package Israel. First and second meet in Haifa on Saturday, before the Israelis host Belgium on Tuesday: after this week is over, we'll have a much better idea of whether this group is going to stay weird for the long haul.
Finally, and sticking with the Home Nations, we turn to Group F. Again, this has a flipped look to it, thanks to the Faroe Islands' remarkable away win over Greece. The real story, however, is the presence of Northern Ireland up in the automatic qualifying spots having won three of their four games. They're at home to Finland on Sunday evening, and a win would put them eight points clear of their opponents in fourth, setting them up nicely for at least a playoff spot.
While Europe gets on with some qualification, most of the rest of the planet will be spending this week indulging in the curious ritual of the international friendly. Jurgen Klinsmann's USA team are undertaking a mini-tour of European countries whose flags feature white crosses on red background, facing Denmark on Wednesday and then heading to Switzerland the following Tuesday.
Brazil are also trotting the globe: before the World Cup, their travels were widely understood as being largely motivated by corporate interests. Now you sort of wonder if they're trying to keep out of the way of their public, just in case the memories of that semifinal are too raw. The international footballing equivalent of sleeping on the couch. Anyway, they're going up against tricky opponents: first they take on (a sadly Paul Pogba-less) France in Paris on Thursday, then they face fellow South Americans Chile in London on Sunday. Alexis Sanchez vs. Neymar. Tasty.
Neymar's not the only one off around the world at the behest of his nation, however. Lionel Messi's Argentina will be visiting the USA, and if the prospect of watching the defeated World Cup finalists dancing through the defences of El Salvador and Ecuador sounds appealing, you horrible sadist, then Washington, D.C. on Saturday or New York on Tuesday are the places to be. Or, you know, near a television.
World Cup qualification
Actually, we lied earlier. It's nearly three-and-a-half years away, but qualification for the 2018 World Cup has already begun down in the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings. The world's minnow fanciers were handed a bonanza earlier in the month when the Asian qualifiers began with Bhutan — officially the worst team in the world — beating Sri Lanka over two legs. Now CONCACAF's little fish have started swimming toward Russia.
St. Kitts and Nevis are playing the Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands have been drawn against Barbados; their British equivalents are taking on Dominica. Now, we have very little how idea whether any of these games are going to be good games, in the traditional sense of containing high levels of skill and ability and so on. They might be terrible; they might be one-sided; they might be 90 minutes of long balls aimed precisely 3 feet above the head of the striker. All this is possible.
Nor do we have any actual idea if they're going to be shown on television, though since Sri Lanka-Bhutan found a way out through YouTube, we have some hope. But even if you're unable to watch/have no interest in watching, keep them in the back of your mind. The World Cup isn't just about a quadrennial blowout. It's a journey that takes in every corner of the world, even those that can't really play football that well, and when you peel away all the sponsors and Sepp Blatters and rigged votes and hideous contempt for the lives of indentured migrant workers, it's this that ensures the World Cup remains, just about, on balance, a Good Thing. St. Kitts aren't going to be involved at the end of the journey, but they're in at the beginning, and so it's theirs as much as it's anybody else's.