Growing up there was no contest. Whether it was the World Cup or the Euros, Home Internationals or a high profile friendly there was nothing to capture like a big game between well-matched countries, especially under floodlights.
But in the era of Sky and the Champions League the lustre of international competition is well and truly dimmed.
This reflects the fact that the elite club game and international football are two very different beasts, with different stresses and strains. Club football is the domain of the three year planner, the ideologue or the empire builder.
International football needs quick, pragmatic thinkers and expedient planners who can keep things simple and build rapport amongst players that are unfamiliar to each other.
The reality is that, as a boss, it is easier to build a team mentality and harness all your resources towards a primary focus in club football than it is at international level – because you have the time, resources and opportunities to do so.
Familiarity alone, among players that play and train together every day, will see to that and make the play more polished, slicker and quicker.
Also, there are slightly different tactical conventions in international football than in the club game. Firstly, in terms of where teams set their defensive line on the field and also secondly, where and how they press the ball when they are trying to win it back.
In international football a load of teams, and I am guessing the majority here, err on the side of caution and defend with a deeper block – a lower lying line.
This is simply because no international side can ever be as well drilled as a comparable club side and they have to keep it simple by necessity to prosper.
The second thing is that the general trend in international football is that most teams are happy to let their opponents have uncontested possession in their own half and they then only press up as a unit when the opponent enters their half. This is because the front six at international level are generally better than the back fours in terms of their ability to control results. As a consequence of this international back fours are far more safety first in mentality than comparable club sides.
And this is a crucial point because the team without the ball, controls the tempo of the game – and not the other way round as you’d probably think as a fan. This is because they can hurry opponents in possession, sit off them, keep a tight compact block, show them wide, dive into tackles, break up the play with fouls, and so on.
And the team with the ball will always have to work out how they want to play as a response to that.
Jose Mourinho apparently has a seven point plan for big games. It is a plan that could have been written specifically for international football. Specifically so as away games are played in a foreign country:
1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.
2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
6. Whoever has the ball has fear.
7. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
As a more tentative, less drilled game, international football tends to have a slower tempo – even if the dynamic action on the field (that leads to goals and chances) is nearly as fast as club football. The build-up is more tentative, less complex, more hesitant because the context is simply unfamiliar in relative terms to club football.
For international managers, the players come together intermittently and unlike club bosses, they can’t dip into the transfer or loan market to solve any imbalances in their side nor indeed can they impose a style of play or complex tactics on an international squad if they don’t have players who can enact it. The football at international level is always a compromised solution by definition.
The exceptions are nations that have a dominant national character and style of play that all players understand and have been schooled in. The Dutch 4–3–3 or the current German side are good examples. But the teams that stand out in their style are exceptions to the general rule.
And then there’s an issue of perception.
Club football finds its natural pecking order in a dressing room but at international level everyone is sailing under a flag of convenience and operating to their own agendas.
Some are patriots, some are playing for profile or a transfer move, others are happy to turn up but won’t put their club interests at risk for the national cause. There might also be players who are great players but can’t find a way to play together with another key man in an international squad.
The preparation is unlikely to be as good or as familiar for big club players representing their country. Small things and better managers make all the difference – and the best managers and coaches are at Champions League clubs as opposed to countries for career and financial reasons.
None of this encourages fast, fluent and coherent football.
As a team thrown together and then dispersed it is hard to create a cohesive squad of subsumed egos and one common cause at international level. Different players come and go, there’s a gap between big games and even if the compressed phase of a finals tournament operates like a club season in miniature form, it just isn’t the same game.
At club level the good teams are so good that they are virtually playing by instinct formed of endless repetition enforcing drills and tactical concepts. This is not the case for international class players – even though their ability or football intelligence is not in dispute – there’s is a game of simply trying to make it work on the day.