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It was the eighth goal that felt most primitive of all. All night long at the Parc des Princes, France had been flaying Kazakhstan with a baying relish that seemed to skirt the boundary between sport and ritual.
Three minutes from time, with the score 7-0 and France’s passage to the World Cup long since secured, Kylian Mbappé chased after Moussa Diaby’s through pass with the Kazakh centre-half Nuraly Alip also in pursuit.
At which point, it’s worth telling you a little about Alip. He’s 21 years old. He plays for FC Kairat in the country’s largest city Almaty. That’s about all I could find out about him on the internet. (Like most young footballers, his Instagram page appears to consist largely of pictures of him doing the thumbs-up in various training settings.) In the wider context of the global game, he’s one of the unseen thousands, a foot-soldier, a name in the Football Manager database. And yet for these few seconds, he was about to share the same air with one of the greatest footballers on the planet.
And so as they both converge on the ball, there’s this poignant sense of worlds colliding, of orbits crossing, of disparate journeys that for this fleeting instant in time are knotted together. Will Mbappé remember this moment? Almost certainly not, and not because he barely feels the challenge before finishing first time to make it 8-0. Will Alip remember it? Probably forever. Whatever happens to him in the rest of his career, that little blur of blue stepping across his path – the sensation of bouncing off something incredibly hard that seems to weigh nothing at all – will stay with him.
It’s worth bearing this in mind as we near the end of what we so euphemistically term the “international break”: a phrase we use to describe something not happening, a hiatus, a measure of time, a manager-sacking window. Certainly it can feel that way from within the overheated hamster wheel of the European club game. For coaches and fans of one of the big teams, and sometimes even for journalists, the arrival of international week can feel like a sort of unwelcome decompression: a sense of air and life being sucked out of the room. We interrupt the greatest show on earth to bring you live coverage of England 5-0 Albania. If you’re extremely lucky, Aaron Ramsdale might start.
Then you have the mismatches. And the first thing to be said is that drubbings in international football are not like drubbings in the club game. When some Championship team gets beaten 7-1 at home, there’s a horror and pathos to it. Angry fans rip up season tickets. Inquests are held. The manager rarely survives the week (particularly if the dreaded international break is coming up). At international level, on the other hand, mismatches are gentle, natural, almost soothing, like watching The Blue Planet. Malta 1-7 Croatia. France 8-0 Kazakhstan. Turkey 6-0 Gibraltar. Germany 9-0 Liechtenstein. This is merely the predator at work, the law of the universe asserting itself.
The trouble is that international football itself has plenty of natural predators. It’s no exaggeration to describe this moment as a sort of crossroads for the international game, hemmed in on all sides not just by the dominance of club football (which is not new) but by the increasing pressure on the post-Covid calendar and the welcome focus on player welfare and climate change (which is, a bit). These days, it’s no longer enough to regard international football as an irritant. Instead, we’re encouraged to see it as an active source of harm. How dare Fifa ask Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham to waste their precious ankle ligaments on this bunch of part-timers from eastern Europe?
The opposition to Arsène Wenger’s idea of a biennial World Cup seems to have sharpened the dividing lines here. On one level it feels like the latest of Fifa’s naked power grabs, this time fronted by a kindly septuagenarian in a big coat. Throw in the Nations League with its pointless third-place play-off, the expanded 48-team World Cup, and it’s relatively easy for international football’s many detractors to paint the whole edifice as a cynical revenue-generating exercise.
And perhaps in a more efficient sport, Germany 9-0 Liechtenstein would have been left to wither long ago. But to apply the law of the market here is to ignore the fact that football doesn’t simply exist to serve the biggest nations, the best players and the richest clubs. On some level, you feel the sport has been trying to shake itself free of this concept for some years now. The European Super League was merely an attempt to concretise the accepted orthodoxy of modern football: that the biggest and wealthiest should be allowed to do as they please without the grotesque indignity of playing teams beneath their level.
But there’s another dimension to all this, and perhaps you only really glimpse it when you see Kylian Mbappé of Paris Saint-Germain going up against Nuraly Alip of FC Kairat. And for all the gulf in skill and fame between them, there’s a shared purpose there too: football in its very purest form. Neither player was bought or sold by their team. Their presence in a national jersey came not at the whim of some billionaire or as a result of a super-agent’s manoeuvring. Neither will ever play for anyone else. After the international break is over they will return to their separate worlds. But for these few seconds their fates are entwined: two men, one ball, and the same human desire to reach it.