As we descend further into the chasm of a largely tedious interlull, are we right to dismiss the importance of national team fixtures?
For those of us who prefer our tribalism to be based on far more abstract concepts than the artificially created borders of nation states (don’t get me started on that one!), we have an uneasy relationship with international football.
Now that the uncomfortable presence of unpleasant nationalist groups has largely waned from English football, we are spared the negative connotations of English flags having an automatic association with the singing of ‘no surrender to the IRA’ and widespread racial abuse. The civilising reclamation of the national team by the moderate masses reached its apex at Euro ’96, where football did indeed come home, in an all embracing manner similar to the London Olympics. No amount of corporate greed, inadequate transport services or inane coverage could dampen the enthusiasm of the majority towards what was ultimately a hugely successful event.
But as the late 1990’s saw the last tangible sense of optimism across ‘Cool Britannia’, the journey to disappointment and subsequent disillusionment with our political system, mainstream culture and financial well-being has been echoed in our relationship with the English national team.
We could attribute this to years of underwhelming performances and an often turgid playing style (after ‘El Tel’ Venables wonderfully balanced side), or even a Guardianista sensibility that rejects the concept of ‘battling’ nations. But to be honest, for me and many others, they are secondary reasons.
Globally club football, and particularly in England, has transformed from the parochial to the international. Where Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ were all born within a stone’s throw from the ground, now it is par for the course for top-level teams to field only one or two players from the home nation in question. Even down the divisions in England or across many of the other professional European Leagues, multi-national squads are the norm.
When your primary church, the week to week sense of community and projected identity, takes on such a global feel, it is hard to feel such a strong sense of national pride and belonging in a sporting context. When we have worshipped at the altar of Thierry, Dennis, Patrick or now Alexis, why should we reject them in favour of some dirty cheating clogger who represents our weekly enemies?
As a society, particularly for those based in big cities (and they don’t come much bigger or more international than London), we are becoming increasingly global in our outlook. Whether it be EU employment legislation, the increased integration of second or third generation immigrants, or a natural product of the information age, the broader social attitude I experienced in my childhood as a mixed race kid in the 80s has changed forever. And sport has played a leading role in this.
That said, the increased acceptance of other cultures, and the internationalisation of major leagues, is probably still less important than a very prosaic reason.
International football is, in comparison with the top level club game, a bit crap.
Sure, there is the lack of excitement when seeing other national sides visit, now that half their best players are bolstering the squads of such exotic environs as West Brom, Newcastle or Tottenham. But of far greater importance is that the best football is almost exclusively played at club level.
It makes perfect sense. A team moulded over months and years can play with a cohesion that is incredibly difficult to achieve when you have access to a disparate group a few weeks of each year. The financial rewards and thirst for day to day involvement mean most of the best managers and coaches would prefer to work at club level given the right opportunity.
A club manager also has the luxury of addressing weaknesses in a squad without being dictated to by passport offices. And thus can create a blend that transcends national sporting characteristics and cultural influences. England would kill for a playmaker like Ozil or a wide man like Sanchez, just as Spain spent decades either having great strikers or great defenders but almost never both, despite an endless supply line of brilliant ball-playing midfielder.
The influence of culture on national teams has been explored by the brilliant David Winner (co-author of Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp) in his books Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football and Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, both of which I highly recommend.
Even former US Secretary of state and master of brutal Realpolitik Henry Kissinger reflected on this in his 1986 Essay “Henry Kissinger: World Cup According to Character“, with gems such as “The German national team plays the way its general staff prepared for the war; games are meticulously planned.” and “I have never seen an outstanding Brazilian goal-keeper. Perhaps the task is too lonely”.
The modern superclubs, of which Arsenal are undoubtedly one, need not rely on such national characteristics and limitations, and thus can, when successful create much more alluring, exciting and effective blends. There is also the simple fact that a club of Arsenal’s size can afford to build a squad that contains a number of some of the best players from a number of national sides.
While there are still outstanding international teams at any given time (Germany, Chile and Argentina spring to mind at the moment), most sides with any European Club pedigree would fancy their chances against all but the very best national sides. There is also the fact that while it is important that the less successful nations have the opportunity to qualify for major tournaments and potentially upset the apple cart, a lá Greece in 2004 (unlike the ICC who seem determined to shrink cricket’s global participation), it is understandable that supporters can find it hard to retain enthusiasm for fixtures like England vs San Marino or Germany vs Gibraltar, given the size of the mis-match.
Watching an assortment of bakers, postmen and students leaving their studs in on your multi-million pound superstar doesn’t exactly encourage a love for the international game. And all us Gooners remember relatively recent title challenges undermined by serious injuries picked up on international duty. Just ask Robin Van Persie (if you can get him to utter any words from the depths of his Turkish despair).
But despite all this, there are positive signs for the international game if one looks wider than just our own national identities. With Iceland topping a group where Holland appear to be about to miss out, Albania having qualified ahead of Denmark and Serbia, Northern Ireland topping their group and Wales back in the big time after a 57-year hiatus, the widening base of the international football pyramid is being reflected in tournament qualification. While one would anticipate the usual suspects will challenge to win the European Championships, the presence of these ‘lesser lights’ brings some of the mystery and romance of pre-Premier League era football back into focus.
And of course, this affects us as club fans too. While we can sometimes be guilty, like many other Arsenal sites, of taking an anglo-centric view, we think that a Gooner in El Salvador or Singapore is just as much one of us as people like myself who were born and raised in London (especially as getting up at some ungodly hour for an inconvenient kick off time takes dedication week after week, year after year!). We are proud to have different nationalities and locations represented on the Daily Cannon team, at least one of whom will enjoy seeing their national team participate on the big stage for the first time in a long time.
And ultimately, it is that big stage that is what is all about. We, and probably some players, can dismiss international fixtures in September, but every second summer, there is a major tournament to potentially capture the imagination. In a career sense, for players, the World Cup remains the big one. Bigger than any club trophy. To be honest, can any Arsenal fan of a pre-Wenger vintage have imagined having multiple World Cup winners (and in some cases European Championship winners too) in the red and white of our club: Mertesacker, Özil, Fabregas, Gilberto, Petit, Vieira (with help in earlier rounds from Podolski and Henry).
So of course, it is MASSIVE for our players. Imagine how excited Ramsey is feeling this week after Wales’ qualification. Or how much better Giroud feels after his two scrappy goals against Denmark. Of course, there is an inevitable emotional release and dip in focus after a massive high with a national team that can adversely affect club form, as Mertesacker commented on last season. And the strain of extra games and lack of rest, that we have seen impact on Sánchez this summer. But there is also the massive confidence boost that comes with a player succeeding at that highest level. Petit went from very good in 1997-98 to utterly imperious in 1998-99 following his success with France.
Gilberto arrived with the quiet assurance of a man who had already achieved every Brazillian’s dream. It can give a player that inherent core of self belief that can stop a loss of form turning into a Chamakh of self doubt. And we all saw how Arshavin basically stopped caring after the failures of the Russian national side.
Ultimately, as the players increasingly become both heroes and participants in a character driven soap opera that we all are addicted to, we should wish for them the happiness that we wish for them to give us. The happier they are, the more likely they are to perform and allow us to live a few more of our dreams through them.
And let’s not forget how brilliant it was in 1998, following the final flourish of Vieira to Petit to make it 3-0 in Stade de France, to see that headline in the Daily Mirror…