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International Friendlies: Are They Really Needed?

Monday 12th November 2018
Friendlies haven't been looked upon too fondly in England since the game against the Mighty Magyars in 1954. The sentiment has spread to other countries' supporters who'd rather see meaningful games.
Friendlies haven't been looked upon too fondly in England since the game against the Mighty Magyars in 1954. The sentiment has spread to other countries' supporters who'd rather see meaningful games.

When it comes down to international football club supporters moan and groan about players who could be injured. No matter who you support, this is always a big issue. Remember when Bayern and Arsenal were all over the Dutch set-up because Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie kept coming back with serious injuries? It's every football fan's nightmare. So why are international friendlies still a thing?

The short answer is money. The international federations want theirs. At least UEFA has listened to complaints that meaningless matches needlessly risked stars. They didn't completely eliminate friendlies. Instead, they turned some into meaningful matches.

The UEFA Nations League is a ploy to make international breaks as more competitive. It succeeded but hasn't prevented international friendlies altogether.

Because some Nations League groups contain three teams, at least one plays a single meaningful match and a friendly in a given international break. The Nations League also pits countries of regularly equal strength against one another and will continue to do so through promotion/relegation. No more England v San Marino or Germany v Gibraltar. One team from each tier qualifies for the European Championships. These are positive steps that make the game more interesting and renew interest in international football.

There are two problems:

  1. Even if the games are meaningful, clubs can still lose stars to injuries suffered while fighting someone else's cause.
  2. Non-European players won't be competing in the Nations League. They may just be involved in friendlies.

Calendars vary from confederation to confederation. African players are involved in qualifying for the Cup of Nations. Meaningful games. South American players are traipsing around the globe to play friendlies in Japan, Korea and the Middle East. While it would be nice if international matches could be reserved for a six or eight-week stretch every summer, the club calendar also varies. June and July are mid-season for some important leagues, including the Russian Premier League and Argentina Superliga. There's no easy solution.

Managers and fans are always cautious about international football. Somebody must bear the blame when a player is injured. Modern football is evolving, trying to find new ways to make games more interesting and develop weaker nations into competitive sides. The Euros expanded to 24 teams and the World Cup will follow suit in 2026, increasing its competing nations by 16 from 32 to 48. That's 16 more than the current slots. Greater interest equals greater profits.

If injuries were preventable, the entire process would be wonderful. When players aren't hurt on international duty, we admire the spectacle. When a player performs well, especially at a major tournament, his price tag can soar. It's a boon for stars at smaller clubs.

When the worst occurs, though, the same cry arises. "Why did they play him in a needless friendly?." Except international football wouldn't exist if it wasn't for friendlies. The first international football match was a friendly between England and Scotland in 1872. It was a catalyst for the entire shebang. And no, until we can control the weather and put every league on the same schedule, we'll always need them so that federations can develop, compete, raise money, and prepare for meaningful games. Club fans may not think so but they are important. Friendlies are the backbone of world football.

Friendly international fixtures
Jamie Kynaston

For my sins, I'm a season ticket holder at Stoke City, I have been proud to watch them for over 20 years. I follow most of the UK leagues and the major European ones too, and I've been told that I talk way too much about football.

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