If Fifa had a brain: how to improve international football

By Phil Gregory

Talking to my mate Mark during England’s match against Italy, we both found it baffling that a team such as Ireland played ten games over two years for the chance to come to the Euros and play three group matches before being sent packing. It got me thinking about a way of making international football much better, for both national team coaches and domestic managers.

First of all, as Arsenal fans we all know how annoying it is when the Arsenal action is broken up by a two week international break. Speaking personally, I can’t get into the internationals, as during the season I’m fully focused on my club. Going to watch internationals is at the back of my mind, as I’m already budgeting to see my beloved Arsenal, so England are way down the list of priorities.

What would be much better is condensing the international action into a single period each year, an “international season” so to speak. Despite England’s many failings, I’ve really enjoyed watching the matches at the Euros and it’s because it is a quality competition with strong sides and a regular fixture list. If this could be replicated and done instead of constant mid-season internationals it’d work much better.

Looking at the season ahead, from the moment pre-season begins to the end of the season in May, I’ve counted two friendlies and five international friendlies, though this varies between sides. For the sake of argument, I think these figures are pretty reasonable to go off. That’s seven games, so if you are generous and play games Saturday/Sunday and Tuesday/Weds (or any combination thereof) international football – tournaments aside – only has to last three and a half weeks if played start to finish. Start the first week’s fixtures on the midweek to allow coaches the beginning of the week for training, and you could have a solid block of four weeks for international football every season. I’d do it at the end of the domestic season (which would be shorter due to the lack of international dates throughout).

Travelling would be greatly reduced as instead of having to jet to Mexico for multiple international dates over the season, all home games for that year would be done in a single trip, though there would still be aways. I imagine that the reduced travel would be pretty popular with domestic managers, and international gaffers would be much happier with a lengthy, continuous period of time to work with their squads and evaluate the players.

What you could also do however, is reduce the number of international matches, to eliminate hopeless mismatches and slightly reduce the number of dates on the calender. Take the recent Euros: fully half of the teams were eliminated after the group stage, so fully half of the sides played a stack of games over two years for the right to play THREE games in Poland./Ukraine. That seems ludicrous to me: the current qualifying round is simply a “first group stage”, with the Euros’ current group stage a “second” group stage before the serious business of the knockouts gets under way.

Clearly, the current “first group stage” (qualifiers) is uncompetitive: Ireland got absolutely smashed at the Euros yet came second in their qualifying group, with Andorra not managing a single win and Macedonia picking up eight points from ten games. Much more sensible would be to have pre-qualifying tournaments for the minnow nations (decided by UEFA coefficient or whatnot) and the winner/top three in a league or the like get put into the main qualifiers. Doing this, you could slim groups down to four teams and have genuinely interesting, competitive groups (as we had in the 16 team Euros) that could be played in a single “international season” at the end of the domestic calender. In reality however, timetabling that would be awkward – you’d either have all your qualifiers in June before a July tournament, or you’d have teams finishing say the Euros and then, without any internationals, going straight into World Cups qualifiers.

Clearly then, practicality suggests that you won’t be able to do the qualifiers in a single “international season”. The best solution then would to spread them over two, have them scheduled for the second half of the international season for that season, with national FA’s having the right to organise mini tournaments or friendlies to warm up for the qualifiers.

While the solution is not quite as tidy as I originally hoped (I wanted qualifers done in a single season for consistency) but the reduction of player travelling time and the benefit of an unbroken domestic season plus a month for international coaches to work with their players per season… it would definitely offset any impact the lower number of qualifiers has in terms of match practice and revenue. Voila: less unnecessary games, and minnow nations will benefit from competing amongst themselves for the opportunity to play with the bigger nations  rather than being consistently demolished in the qualifying groups by the major nations. They’d lose the revenue that those games would bring, so some element of international revenue sharing would be required in order to compensate them for this loss but I can’t imagine it’d be a big ask for the major nations.

It wouldn’t surprise me if mini-tournaments e.g. the “Scandinavian Cup” or “British Isles Trophy” sprung up as warm-ups to the qualifiers, and these would probably be entertaining and competitive, replacing the current dull friendlies.  It wouldn’t surprise me if these type of tournaments, would raise more money than one-off friendlies too, so again, everyone’s a winner.

The only issue I can foresee is timing: where do you fit in what is effectively a “season” (albeit short) of international football? Probably the best way to do it would be to play the domestic season, and then have the international season immediately after. Allowing players a short break to refresh would keep them sharp ahead of the four week international season, divided between warm-up games and then two weeks of qualifiers. Players would then have the Summer to rest up as normal, play the domestic season then do another four week “international season” to finish their qualification campaign, then go to the World Cup in 2014. For me, that would work much better. There’d be no disruption of domestic leagues from a player getting injured on international duty in November, or disadvantages for players who represent nations that are pretty distant and come back jetlagged.

With this sort of reorganisation, you’d also open the door to greater synchronisation of domestic leagues, which will only help the competitiveness of international tournaments, as well as starting the debate on introducing a winter break in the Premier League.

Certainly worthy of thought, though I don’t doubt there will be issues somewhere I haven’t thought of…


14 Replies to “If Fifa had a brain: how to improve international football”

  1. just the title: If Fifa had a brain… LOL

    I agree with this solution completely. I’ve just looked at the fixtures list and seen that we got 2 games to play (and on 15 august Belgium plays Holland FFFFFFFFFs sigh sigh grumble grumble) That is 3 days for the start of the league…..
    And then we play 2 games and then we have another international break…

    This is all so ridiculous.

  2. Good point all Phil. It might take a little fine tuning but your thought process is sound.

    You mentioned Ireland, and as an Irishman I have to add that we could change the season around ten ways to Sunday but it still would not help our impoverished team. Awful display by us at the Euros, and if we’re honest, not a great advertisement for the English game in general. Hopefully one day we (Ireland and England) will be able to coach our kids in the proper ways of playing the game and make a serious challenge at major tournaments.

    In the interim though, this is a very good suggestion.

  3. OFF TOPIC ,Arsenal.com says as of now that V-Persie have signed a long time contract Please is it a bluff or LET US KNOW. Phil, Walter, Tony, Dogface whats going on!!!

  4. Kampala Gun,

    I haven’t seen anything on arsenal.com

    But there is something going on that is for sure. Because the last change on the website dates from Friday.
    So that is a whole weekend with no news at all… Even in the dead season this is very long and a bit strange.
    I do think there is some kind of black out instruction from the board to not publish anything for now until some things have become clear.

    Maybe they have followed my suggestion and bought the gun 😉

  5. Hi Kampala,

    I think it was the archive story:

    Starts off:

    Van Persie signs new long-term contract

    Arsenal Football Club is delighted to announce that Robin van Persie has signed a new long-term contract with the Club.

    Van Persie (25), who joined the Gunners from home town club Feyenoord in 2004, was Arsenal’s leading goalscorer last season with 20 goals from his 44 overall appearances.

    But it states he’s 25 so it’s just from last time around.


  6. RobL – probably just a bunch of peopl playing an internet prank. If enough people like a story – even if it is ancient – on a slow news day, it’ll likely be enough to get it in the most liked box. Most likely if you search around rival fan forums there will be a bunch of them who came up with this idea. Pretty smart of them, but irritating – though if we did it to Spurs we’d all be laughing!

    Walter – you share my frustration, and I can only begin to think what domestic (and international) managers make of this shambles! Apologies also to Walter for the lengthy time it took to finalise this piece, I’ve been mad busy with work, though I have been catching up on your Untold articles this weekend 😉

  7. Phil, that is a very big IF in the title.

    On a more serious note, I believe the internationals should be done in one fell swoop. Firstly so we can all go on holiday when there is no real football and secondly so the teams spend much more time together playing, training and more importantly, bonding. Funny how one week two players can be at each others throats (sometimes literally) then play on the same team and then full circle.

  8. What needs to happen is that all leagues have mandatory winter breaks and then maybe try to fit some matches there. Also although i don’t dislike it, England put themselves at a disadvantage with the carling cup. Its just extra matches that most of the time are simply unnecessary.

  9. I like the idea of internationals all being condensed into one or at the most two periods of time each year. I also think there are different ways to qualify that is more reflective of the ability of national sides actually competing.

  10. Phil din’t you know that they are increasing number of countries to qualify in EC next time (20 or 24)?
    Also that time when all qualifications and matches should be played is that March-May or September-November time? Or is the idea to “Kill” football in Finland and maybe Norway. I know Finland is small country in football but putting hold of 1-2 months of season for national team will not be good thing. Also moving season to winter is impossible here because weather (we have lot more snow during winter than in England that cancels matches) and winter is ice-hockey season (young kids often play football in summer and ice hockey in winter like Jari Litmanen and Teemu Selanne and end up being professional in one).
    Sorry if this is bit harsh but reading newspapers (economy pages) lately have made that inpact on me.

  11. Incidentally, my understanding is that some of these smaller idiosyncratic tournaments already do exist — among Wales, N. Ireland, and Scotland, for example.

    But living in another country (USA) with a summer football calendar, rather than a FIFA one, I have to disagree with @FinnGooner — I think the league and international calendars can be reconciled without killing off the sport. For example, the National Hockey League takes a multi-week break during the winter Olympics to allow its players to compete there. And other leagues already build a month-long break into their schedules over Christmas and New Year’s (although the Premiership does not), without undue hardship.

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