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International football seems to be getting increasingly unpopular in recent times and the return of top flight club football this coming weekend will be a welcome relief to the majority of fans. I think there are some legitimate complaints against international football but I want to explain why I still think it is the purest form of the sport.

From a fans point of the view the main gripe seems to be that an international break disrupts the sacred routines they have about their club side, and without their club fixtures they get bored. You know there are other things that you can do when your club side is not playing, catch up on your DVD box sets, read a book, engage in meaningful human contact, there are a variety of options.  I secretly suspect that international games rob some fans of their ready made excuse to go out drinking with their mates and this is the true cause of the resentment. As a complaint this would actually have more validity than just saying that breaks in the club calendar for internationals are ‘boring.’

I think that the clubs who lose their players to international teams have a more genuine grievance.  They pay the players and to lose a clutch of them for 10 days every month or two is no doubt disruptive. In addition there is the problem of injuries that players may pick up whilst representing their country. Whilst there is a compensation scheme in place it must be annoying for a club manager to lose a player in those circumstances. However I do think this argument is overplayed somewhat, injuries are simply a part of football are and are no more likely to occur whilst a player is on international duty than when he is with his club.

The argument that some internationals are ‘meaningless’ is bogus, clubs play plenty of meaningless games. Arsenal have lost Jack Wilshere (probably for the majority of the season) to an injury that he aggravated during a money spinning pre season friendly. It was about as meaningless as a football match can get but you won’t hear Arsene Wenger (or indeed Arsenal fans) saying that The Emirates Cup should be scrapped. Ultimately does it really matter in what circumstances a player got injured? The net result is exactly the same.

Perhaps the most cogent argument put forward to explain why international football has lost some its lustre is that it no longer represents the pinnacle of the sport in terms of quality. In this regard it has been supplanted by the UEFA Champions League. Whilst this is difficult to judge as it is somewhat subjective in nature I have to concede that there is merit in this stance and really it is no surprise at all that this should be the case. The elite clubs in Europe are not only able to cherry pick the best talent from around the world, every day they have the chance to coach that talent and on top of that they have probably 50+ games a season to develop the understanding in the team. Damn right that elite clubs should be able to produce a more cohesive outfit than a national side. Given all these advantages it is a wonder that any quality gap that exists between the Champions League and international football is not much, much wider.

I still have the highest regard for international football, to my mind it is the purest form of the game because it is the one that is least shaped by money.  It is the truest test of coaching, tactics and intelligence, because you can’t solve all your football problems financially, you have to find some other way of doing it. Obviously money is still an important factor as a rich country will have a much better organisational capability than a poor one and can afford (should they wish) to import expensive coaching talent, but it is not deformed by money. If, say Belgium, suddenly produce a crop of outstanding young players then, say England, can’t just go out and buy those players. It will be Belgium that will be able to reap the rewards of their own good work.

I think it is wonderful that a tiny country like the Netherlands can for generation after generation produce some of the best technical players in the world whilst a big powerful nation like England (in footballing terms anyway) has only just started producing players that aren’t terrified by the ball. You tend to get what you deserve in international football. In some ways Greece winning Euro 2004 with a modicum of luck and a coherent game plan (albeit a dreadfully dull one) is a more praiseworthy achievement than Team X winning the Champions League again with its latest array of store bought talent.

If you have ever been to a major international football tournament you could not doubt that it has a magic and a historical weight that no club game could ever hope to match. Sometimes the weekly grind of club football can seem a little petty and parochial in comparison.

by Nilesh Bhagat