Everybody hates international breaks. This has become almost an article of faith. Everybody hates international breaks because of course they do; the papers go mad and start trying to add ‘-gate’ onto everything, while apathy settles over everybody else like a thick blanket. Apart from Brendan Rodgers, who gets to spend a few blissful days enjoying the company of Daniel Sturridge, and Wayne Rooney, who is in line to pick up his 100th cap on Saturday and so is presumably feeling quite pleased with himself, there is literally not a single person on the planet who, liking her soccer, is looking forward to the coming week.
An exaggeration, perhaps, but one with some truth in it. International breaks just don’t hum along in the same slightly-hysterical way. In part this is a question of timing. The World Cup was a glorious reminder of all the wonderful things that international football can be and do — a month of joy, hilarity, schadenfreude, Costa Rica, James Rodriguez and turning on after half an hour to say “er, hang on, they’ve scored five?” Not even England could ruin it. Hell, not even Greece could ruin it.
But sure as night follows day, sure as the morning after follows the Lord Mayor’s show, so comes the drab realization that if we want the summers of love, we must endure the winters of qualification. Perhaps in a year’s time, when the stakes are bigger and it starts to look as though, say, Portugal might somehow contrive to miss out on the most generous qualification arrangements this side of Vanessa-Mae, things will feel more exciting. Perhaps.
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There is a wider conversation to be had about international soccer and whether it is losing its appeal. As the big clubs mutate and grow into trophy-hoovering superclubs, and as the Champions League swells in proportion to match the turnovers of those teams that take part, so international soccer starts to look a little redundant. Quaint, even. Certainly, no international side can hope to match the best clubs for pure quality; those that have come closest — the Spain that just died and the Germany that just replaced it — have done so by building their teams around a core of players from the same club, which we can all agree is a slightly underhanded approach.
That said, there is still plenty of evidence that the old-fashioned country-on-country scrap is something that people care about. This piece is being written in England, a strange country where everybody seems to be convinced that the national team has never been so unlikeable, so unpopular, so far removed from the concerns of the man in the street being run over by the Clapham omnibus … yet 55,990 people turn up to watch it play against San Marino. In Europe, the expansion of the European Championship has inspired a few middle- to lower-tier nations to set about their supposed betters with gusto. And, of course, Albania’s recent visit to Serbia was disrupted by a politically (but thankfully, not literally) explosive drone, which if nothing else suggests that the soccer can still stand as a proxy for nationalist expression. That might not be an unequivocally good thing, but it’s definitely a thing.
No, there’s an issue with the international break that doesn’t just stem from the problems with international soccer itself. Cast your mind back to Feb. 11, 1990. Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of incarceration by the apartheid government of South Africa, is about to be released from prison. Millions of people around the world sat before their television sets, watching as history unfolded. And more than 500 of those people were moved to write to the BBC to complain that this historic moment had cut into that afternoon’s broadcast of Antiques Roadshow.
Antiques Roadshow, on the off-chance you’ve not had the pleasure, is a show which sees experts travelling the country to appraise objects that people have found tucked away in the attic. Most of these will be worthless; the occasional one will be worth a few quid. Being generous, we might concede that Mandela’s release took a while to get going, and an hour or so of unmoving footage of a road and a barrier is, perhaps, even less exciting than watching an elderly man peer over the top of pair of horn-rimmed glasses before intoning regretfully that, while the plate in his hands might look like an original, it is in fact of minimal worth, as can be deduced from the fact that very few authentic Wedgwoods feature the Cookie Monster.
But still. While there’s obviously no comparison between one of the most significant political events of the 20th century and Japan versus Honduras, or between an irritated fan and the righteous anger of an antiquarian denied their mid-afternoon fun, the lesson is the following: people really, really don’t like being interrupted.
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This is what the international break is, more than anything else: an interruption. It’s … well, it’s rude. Even if the soccer served up were the greatest soccer possible, it would still be an unwelcome intrusion, unlooked for and unloved. A soccer season is a story, albeit often one of pain and misery and loneliness and horror, and the international break is an interjection from a different story, one that gets in the way of the first. As though, by some quirk of legislation, every fourth episode of your favorite box set was, in fact, an episode of something entirely different. There are, we have learned, some analogies that sports writers who watch very little television should probably avoid.
And it’s not as though it’s simply a benign distraction, a temporary delay to the important business. Things happen in the international week that have an impact beyond; while Liverpool’s tragicomic start to the season isn’t entirely down to the absence of Daniel Sturridge, run into the ground by England, it’s probably safe to assume that he might have helped some. Extending that television analogy well beyond what’s reasonable, it’s as though Buffy picked up something virulent in an episode of, say, House, then spent the next eight weeks wiped out in Sunnydale Memorial while the creatures of the night made merry and bloody in her absence. Feel free to distribute the rest of Liverpool’s squad throughout the cast as you please, but we insist that Dejan Lovren would make an excellent Xander.
The ultimate implication here is that the club game has swollen, noxious and gas-like, to command all available attention; and that other soccer — international, lower league and maybe cup, as well — has choked and withered away to the point that it’s become an irritation. There’s a curious circularity involved here: top-level club soccer has the most money flowing through it, therefore top-level club soccer is the thing that demands and receives most attention, therefore top-level club soccer assumes the most importance. It may be the best, but it’s also the loudest.
As such, it’s hard not to conclude that any irritation comes as much from the self-proclaimed and media-reinforced majesty of top-level club soccer as it does from any actual discontent with the game itself. Most soccer is pretty rubbish, once you break it down and strip away the noise, and at least internationals have to their credit a certain amount of historical weight, patriotic heft, and occasionally a decent anthem or two. Ultimately, the story of international soccer between major tournaments might not be as exciting as another Manchester United transfer rumor, but still might be worth telling nonetheless. If we can just convince ourselves that it’s not, in fact, the incessant bleating of something irrelevant, attempting to spoil our fun.