SEASON starts. Season stops. Another international friendly clogging up our early campaign, a continental pre-season. A yearly complaint, and this time Kenny got out of the traps first – an utterly justified gripe (as much about the Saturday start as the existence thereof) but one which in one form or another always arrives with the monotony of doom.
This monotony may have to break sooner or later.
Karl-Heinz Ruminiegge fired a shot across FIFA’s bows on 27th July. The media ran heavily with the corruption angle and are toying with the Super League notion but that’s just the macguffin for this; his big finish and the real battle ground is the eternal discussion about the swelling size of international football’s itinerary.
The clubs’ argument against all this is exceptionally valid but the bigger clubs need to start publically presenting coherent solutions that all supporters can get behind. Any solution needs to be presented as one which can reinvigorate the calendar for everyone, especially in these over-saturated times.
The main thing that cloys about the international calendar is the number of pointless, uncompetitive qualifiers and friendlies.
Regardless of the Scouse not English question, the main thing I want to see at any stage of any season, between any two teams, is a competitive game of football with something at stake.
It is only vitality which will offer international football a chance of matching the Champions League and top league games within the conventional season.
Rather than the current set up of five or six sides across nine groups, fewer groups with fewer teams and therefore fewer games would result in more being at stake.
The weaker nations should have to pre-qualify to make the qualification group stages meaning we distill the tournament into something quicker and more competitive.
Seven groups of four where two go through ups the level of competition. Furthermore having the team in fourth relegated back into a pre-qualifier cycle for the next qualification campaign would means every game could have something riding on it. So qualifier outcomes would be as follows:
- Qualification place for next tournament
This means there are only six qualification games. These could be played in two blocks of three, one block in the last two weeks of October, the other the first two weeks in June.
Currently we have an international break in August, September, October and November. That lessens the momentum of the league season and means the international competition never gets into its stride.
Highly-competitive games in blocks of three means a build-up of momentum and a proper break within the season for international football. It means bigger crowds and bigger TV audiences.
The prize is actually on the line rather than the slow monthly grind into the bigger tournament. There would be more room in the league calendar to compress games in years of qualification and the option would remain as a tournament warm up for events such as the Nations Cup in the October before a big tournament. A pattern something like:
- October 12 – qualifier one
- June 13 – qualifier two
- October 13 – friendly tournament
- June 14 – friendlies leading into tournament.
Would do the job. And to make the point about the league calendar, for Liverpool this season we lose the time between August 27 at home to Bolton until September 10 at Stoke to international football. You could get three games in there.
We also lose the time between Everton away on October 1 and Manchester United two weeks later. You could just pull United forward a week, shift Norwich and West Brom from the rest of October and pull them into the September gap.
There’s still a gap in November to come of 15 days between league games. Fill that in and you open up the possibility of a winter break between the third and fourth round of the FA Cup.
Beyond the benefits to the supporter and the football of the stronger nations and their leagues, there’s an argument it is of benefit for poorer sides in pre-qualifying.
Every nation’s support want to see their side against the best but they’d be able to shift from backs-to-the-wall football and instead play competitive football against sides they can beat, sharpening the act going into qualification and then being able to challenge the bigger nations with one good block of results putting them in a strong position.
A side that has the habit of winning is more likely to cause an upset than one going into its 20th straight season of simply attempting to retain dignity on the European stage.
Re-modeling the European season around this wouldn’t solve all the problems; we have a league with Asians, Africans and Americans North and South competing, but it is something the top flight European clubs can push for their own good and for the good of international competition as a whole.
It’ll be tough to get the support of a mortgaged-to-the hilt FA but an alternative programme combined with complaints is always going to be stronger than just complaints.