The Long Game – The Future of Football’s Truest Test

“Single nationalities are so 20th century!”

As the closest thing to a truly global game that exists, issues in football can provide a neat way of understanding and exploring wider developments in the world. Population movement and the effect it has on both the concept of nationality generally and the evolution of people’s sense of belonging specifically are subjects that utterly fascinate me. The quote above comes from a conversation I had on twitter with the excellent Maher Mezahi. While France’s team will always have a smattering of Algerian or Congolese surnames, we are starting to see the same process in reverse, with the likes of Michaël Fabre and Michaël Chrétien turning out for Algeria and Morocco respectively. Just as history is an ongoing conversation between the past and the present, population movement creates an ongoing conversation between where these people are and where they or their ancestors came from. This particular conversation – which applies to a greater proportion of the world every year – is particularly visible through football, and thus constitutes one of the most interesting aspects of international football that we can track over the coming decades.

But international football will not continue to survive, despite its relevance on a social level, if it fails to remain relevant in sporting terms. International matches and tournaments are often derided for the supposedly poor quality of the football on offer, often with the refrain “wake me up when the league starts again”. But not only do I believe that international football is still important in sporting terms, I would further argue that it is – and will always be – the truest, hardest test of a footballer that we are able to set.

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To return to rather basic principles, humans move around rather a lot. They always have done, and much as some of Europe’s more reactionary citizens may complain, they always will. Sometimes they move to escape a threat, sometimes to take advantage of an opportunity, and sometimes, like our ancient ancestors, for no other reason than to garner an answer to the question, “What’s over there?”

Football reflects all of these, often in rather intricate ways and over vastly different time frames. The national teams of many countries in Western Europe have been strengthened, indirectly, by the fleeing of a whole generation from the Yugoslav civil war. Switzerland might not be at this World Cup were it not for the persecution in their homelands of Kosovars over the previous half a century.

Likewise, the opportunity to start new lives in new places meant a generation of people from all over the world could come to Western Europe to help the rebuilding operation in the aftermath of World War Two. These people brought with them manpower and intellect, but they also embodied the history of their origins. They brought that history in the form of culture, music, food and more besides that permanently changed the countries to which they moved. Some of their children ended up winning World Cups and European Championships for what was now their country.

Perhaps the ultimate example is David Trezeguet. Born in France to an Argentinian of French origin, he grew up in Argentina but matured as a player in France. He is currently playing out his career back in Argentina. Is this person French or Argentinian? Does it matter? More importantly (because in answer to the previous question I would say yes), is the question being asked with a smile on one’s face or a scowl?

For millions of people all over the world these are extremely important questions. It affects their day to day lives in curious ways, from what to call themselves on job applications to the relationships they can have with their parents. Football can both confuse the issue further for some and provide moments of clarity for others. “Who do you support?” can be a friendly question borne of genuine curiosity or it can be a loaded accusation of supposedly failed loyalty[1]. When it is the latter, it is often provoked by a combination of fear, anger and blind patriotism, the kind that extolls how great a country is and how much greater it is than every other nation without any hint of rational thought. Patriotism is a farce.

The idea of nationality, however, is not. Wherever I go I carry French and British passports. I also carry with me French and British sensibilities, French and British culture, and French and British history. I am what I am because France and Britain are what they are. Whether I like it or not (and mostly I do, regardless of any complaints you may hear from time to time), I represent the cultures from which I come, and in a much more specific way than I do as a citizen of Europe or of the World. It is logical, therefore that a football match involving these countries brings out incredibly strong feelings[2]. It is not patriotism that I feel, for patriotism has rather more aggressive, unthinking connotations such as the ones I described above. What I feel is the emotion derived from that ongoing conversation between what I am and what I come from in the happiest way I can imagine it. For want of a better term, it is the “party nationalism” that Simon Kuper described in issue five of The Blizzard. It allows you to feel good about yourself and your origins without feeling the need to belittle those from outside your circle.

Ridding the world of international football, one of the few outlets for this internal conversation and one of even fewer that can provoke such pleasure, would be a needless waste of something beautiful. My parents happened to be in Paris in 2009 when Algeria defeated Egypt to qualify for their first World Cup in over a quarter of a century. The joy they witnessed was something that only football, and then only the beautiful enormity of the World Cup, can provide. Watching your team win a League or a Champions League is one thing, but participating with other people who are what they are for the same reasons you are what you are – who share origins, in other words – in a moment of collective euphoria goes beyond what club football can offer. The end of a World Cup qualifying campaign is like nothing else in sport.

Given the explosion of talent coming out of Switzerland over the last ten years it is not unreasonable to think that they could mount a serious challenge at one of the next two European Championships (a World Cup might be beyond them, but you never know). After winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Xherdan Shaqiri took to the field with a dual Swiss-Kosovar flag. Were he to triumph in a European Championship final with Switzerland, Shaqiri might be tempted to repeat the trick. But even if he and his fellow Swiss-Kosovars in the team do not, you can be sure their equivalents on the streets will, just as Algerian flags came out in force to celebrate Zinedine Zidane winning a World Cup for France.

International football might, for some people, be the only way of marrying these diverse parts of their identity. International football is relevant because it can act as a way for an ever-increasing number fans and players to understand, project or play with their increasingly multifaceted sense of self. It is also, contrary to popular belief, the greatest test of a footballer that we can currently set.

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It is hard to argue with the oft-repeated statement that the highest level of football is no longer found in international matches, but in the Champions League – nor is that my intention. But international football is still, and probably always will be, the greatest test of a footballer for precisely the same reasons that explain why the best football is to be found in the Champions League.

International football used to be the highest level of the sport because it was the only arena where all of the best players could play together. Prior to and during the early part of the Champions League era, there was a more even distribution of talent throughout teams and throughout leagues. The rise of what Jonathan Wilson has labeled the super-clubs changed this[3].

The biggest, richest clubs have always collected most of the trophies on offer, but never has the gap between the good teams and the super-clubs been so great, something reflected in the absurd points-per-game ratios required to win the biggest national leagues[4]. The biggest teams have stockpiled all the best players. As if that was not enough, the impact of these players’ abilities is being multiplied by the fact that they are able to train and play together regularly, to build up the mutual understanding required to make lightning fast decisions in high-pressure situations.

Mutual understanding seems to be underplayed as a topic generally within the wider discourse of football as it is played on the field. Perhaps this is because it lies in a halfway house between the often ridiculous dichotomy of individuals vs tactics, so it only gets a passing mention. For instance, I have read articles about David Silva and I have read articles about James Milner, but I have yet to see a piece specifically devoted to detailing the astonishing transformation Milner undergoes in Silva’s presence from a decent player to a dangerous, creative and much more versatile attacking threat[5], a “space-explorer” not dissimilar to Thomas Mueller. This is not a one-way process of the genial Spaniard getting the best out of the willing but limited Englishman. Milner displays his creativity and intelligence in the runs that he makes for Silva’s passes, just as Silva displays his creativity and intelligence in finding Milner. The mutual understanding between them multiplies their abilities, often with spectacular results.

You do occasionally find pieces devoted to the subject, such as this marvelous tale of the history behind Dunga’s Brazil, an infernal machine which could have won the 2010 World Cup. That team was filled with players who understood precisely what their teammates would do based on the mutual understanding built up in different environments over the course of a decade. Sadly articles like this are few and far between. It is a curiously and sadly under-explored aspect of the way football is played, one that is crucial to understanding the importance of international football as a test quite apart from anything club football provides.

The lack of time to build mutual understanding between players means that only those who have the greatest sporting intelligence are able to play at or near to the level they reach for their clubs. Only those who have the greatest understanding of the intricacies of football[6] can truly shine in both environments.

This presents rather different criteria by which to judge who the best players are: rather than those who win the most trophies, they are those who are able to play consistently at their best regardless of who they play with, who they play for and the context in which they play. Those players who can adapt to the shifting sands of different teammates, coaches, tactical systems, and the slightly more reserved style of football one tends to find at international level must surely be seen as superior to those who perform at a high level for their club simply through constant practice with the same team mates in the same systems. Think of it as being akin to the difference between a student getting good marks through rote learning and a student getting good marks through their ability to think critically and understand at a much deeper level. One of the reasons football exists is as a form of the question, “who’s better?” This applies to clubs, and also to nations when there’s a tournament on. We also ask the question, endlessly, about individual players. If we want to answer that question accurately, we need a true test.

Bobeto

[1] An accusation known as the Tebbit Test after that particularly nasty individual

[2] The question of why I support France and never support England is one I may return to at a later date.

[3] As an aside I might as well add here my own take on the ‘Makelele role’. There have always been defensive midfielders whose jobs included protecting their defenders, committing tactical fouls, telling the referee how to do his job, recycling possession and letting more creative players do their jobs with greater freedom. Describing these players as playing in ‘the Makelele role’ is as heretical as saying that Cristiano Ronaldo invented scoring goals from free-kicks. Makelele’s true role in the history of the game is as a watershed between old and new trends in squad-building. The biggest, richest clubs always bought the best players. But Chelsea’s acquisition of Makelele heralded the moment where the biggest clubs accepted the need to pay fortunes for players regardless of their position or marketability and, crucially, paid them as much (or almost as much) as the team’s biggest stars.

[4] This, as much as anything else, was the main reason why I feel Sid Lowe had a point when suggesting that Diego Simeone’s achievements at Atletico Madrid eclipse those of any other club manager ever, including Brian Clough at Derby and Nottingham Forest. Clough was operating at a time when the gaps he was bridging were great, but nothing compared to that between La Liga’s Big Two and the rest during the Superclub era to this point.

[5] If someone has written this article, please send it to me. I would love to read it. The closest I could find was this and this but these illustrate the point I made earlier: a discussion of an individual’s qualities (BR’s article) or a tactical analysis (from Michael Cox) but nothing devoted specifically and in much more detail to their on-field relationship.

[6] They need not be able to express this in words. It is enough that they can express it with their feet.