International breaks pass at an agonisingly slow pace for most football fans. The only exceptions to this rule are either supporters of lower league sides whose fixtures are not interrupted by the national team’s matches and those who love getting drunk in a foreign city, abusing locals and singing songs about the Second World War.
The two-week hiatus drags on in no small part thanks to the fact that friendly fixtures are humdrum affairs of little importance to players, fans and managers, yet for some reason, these matches still litter the footballing calendar. Italy come to Wembley tonight (Tuesday) after Germany and Brazil visited in November. Even the big names don’t provoke exciting viewing; both those games were goalless and unremarkable events. You may have forgotten they even took place.
If friendlies against the world champions and football’s most successful nation fail to live in the memory for a few months, what does that say for the history books? It is time that players were not rewarded with international caps for such meaningless games and more suitable terminology was used. For example, Wayne Rooney played 119 times for England and received 74 caps (competitive games) and 37 of his 53 goals were actually of some value in those games.
The meaningless fixture is nothing new in football, either. This tradition of matches being played for no reason other than to raise a few quid long predates the debts accumulated at the FA as it pays off the ‘new’ Wembley bill: 50 of Sir Bobby Charlton’s 106 caps and a staggering 22 goals (from the previous all-time English record of 49) came in these organised kickabouts.
What is the purpose of these training matches then? Caps are handed out willy-nilly (Diego Maradona called up more than 100 players when he was Argentina manager), players frequently withdraw after citing questionable minor injuries and number crunching proves that playing numerous friendly matches is not conducive to climbing Fifa’s world rankings.
Managers do not learn about what players can and can’t do from friendly matches. Gareth Southgate will not find out anything new this evening. The European qualifying stages for major tournaments are unchallenging enough and managers should use the weaker opposition in these competitive (in name, at least) matches to try new players and tactics. Fixtures against two teams filled with players coming towards the end of their season who also failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup are not encounters that merit a cap and should not contribute towards any historical records.
While many chuckled at Wales’ exploits in the China Cup, at least they’ve got the right idea. By playing for some form of trophy and prize, no matter how trivial, their matches have some importance.
Let’s stop dishing out meritless caps and try to make English international football more exciting again. Bringing back the Home Championship would be a fine start, but the Uefa Nations League will have to make do for now (if anyone ever understands how it works).