International football is failing to draw the TV audiences like it once did and the level of interest in England continues to dwindle during long-winded and drawn out World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns. What can be done to turn the situation around? We asked our football writers and experts:
'Broadcast junior teams' games on terrestrial TV'
The international game is still the most accurate reflection of a nation’s football health and perhaps that is why it seems to evoke such strong feelings in people who profess not to care a bit about the England team.
Whether we like it or not, the international game demonstrates the success or otherwise of our football right down to the roots of local parks and schools and all of us who play or coach at some level have a stake in it. There could be small things done to give the country a greater stake in the team before many of them develop the deep-seated hatred of the players. I would like to see the junior teams’ games broadcast on terrestrial television as was previously the case with Victory Shield final for the Under-16s at Wembley in the 1970s and 1980s.
On a wider scale, the qualifiers against tiny nations inaugurated by Fifa in recent years have been a waste of time. They devalue international football as an elite representative sport. World Cup finals and European championships have never been about the spirit of participation, as is the Olympic ethos, they have been about top-level football and that has certainly been lost in qualifying in recent years.
Nevertheless, the qualifying for Euro 2020 will operate under the new Uefa Nations League format and hopefully will see England play the best teams in Europe. That is the only way to go for international football: greater quality and the top teams playing each other on a regular basis. It should be brave enough to embrace that pursuit of quality and a less is more policy.
'Reduce the number of friendlies'
International football is not dying but it can be dull. And it can be meaningless. Here are a couple of ideas to pep it up.
1/ Introduce pre-qualifying for weaker nations such as San Marino, Andorra and Luxembourg. Yes, it is all about widening participation, improving the game but some participants are simply too small and need to earn their place in the qualifying groups. Their matches, at present, become exercises in damage-limitation, keeping the score down and it can lead to cynical tactics and boring fixtures. By playing each other first they will not only have more competitive fixtures but can actually win something and not just congratulate themselves on losing 6-0 to Spain rather than 9-0. A lot of the players for these teams do not play huge numbers of matches for their clubs so can play extra internationals.
2/ Limit the number of friendlies.
Originally I had thought about simply saying ‘scrap friendlies’ and to an extent I still believe that but I accept that some warm-up matches are probably worthwhile as are some prestige fixtures. Probably. But it often does not feel like that. Instead friendlies are money-making exercises, rather than vital preparation, to fill up the calendar. There are few that actually mean anything – just remember England beating Germany 3-2 before the Euros. Few things are actually learnt and anyway, professional footballers playing ‘friendlies’ is a contradiction in terms. How can their involvement be properly assessed if we do not know whether the opposition were even trying?
Reducing – scrapping? – the number of friendlies would also instantly reduce fixture congestion, would shut up coaches who complain about not having enough time with their players in training and would mean international fixtures that do take place mean even more.
'Make World Cup a 16-team event and the Euros just eight'
The paradox of international football is that expansion has led to diminution: the bigger and more crowded the competition, the less interesting it becomes. In pursuit of votes from constituent associations, the heads of Fifa and Uefa have relentlessly diluted their offer. The expanded World Cup and European Championships deliver nothing beyond an endless succession of uninteresting, uncompetitive, pointless qualification games. You only have to look at England’s progress to see how uninspiring the process now is: England win every qualifying game only crumble the moment the challenge becomes significant when they arrive at the finals.
What gives the Premier League worldwide significance is the competitive uncertainty that lurks in every round of fixtures: on any given weekend any side in the division can beat any other. That simply no longer obtains in the bloated international qualification process. Germany will never lose to the Faroe Islands or Italy to San Marino or France to Luxembourg. In such circumstances all they need do is go through the motions. Which is of no value to anybody.
The answer is to reduce the size of landmark competitions. Make the World Cup a 16-team event, the Euros just eight, with a much smaller qualifying process filtered by relegation and promotion. A national team would need to earn the right to attempt to qualify through a tiered system of up to four divisional groupings. Thus every match in qualifying would count. Not only would teams be playing for a place in the finals, they would be scrabbling to avoid being relegated into a lower tier.
It would benefit everyone. Bigger countries would be obliged to work harder through much tougher groups; meaningful competition with fewer fixtures would gift the international game the value of proper competitive rarity. There would be no such thing as a straightforward walkover; they would play only those with a legitimate chance of beating them.
While for smaller countries, a qualification process which now invariably ends in the disappointment of not making the finals would be given proper purpose with the new incentive of promotion to a higher tier.
It makes sense. But it will never happen. Not when the current system promotes immediate self-interest above the long-term health of the international game.
'Get rid of qualifiers during a domestic season'
From now on, those who reach the last 16 of the World Cup and Euros gain immediate qualification into the next tournament. In the Euros, a qualification process held the previous summer should determine the remaining 16 places. Eight groups of four will compete, the top two in each group progressing to the following year’s event.
Each side trying to reach the tournament will play six qualifying games, home and away, over the course of June/early July. This may drag on the season for international players, but domestic campaigns will end sooner without international breaks. The strongest nations that have already secured qualification through their performance in the previous Euros/World Cup could use this time to organise their own mini warm-up tournaments, making international friendlies more interesting and giving coaches a chance to spend longer with their players and getting them used to a ‘tournament’ environment.
In the World Cup (now a 48-team event) there will still be 32 places still up for grabs in the qualifying events - split into the usual world zones.
There will be seedings to determine who gets the chance to compete for a place in the World Cup/Euros, with lesser nations such as San Marino and Gibraltar playing their own pre-qualifying summer tournaments to earn the right to move up the rankings and progress to 'full' qualification status. The approach should be more like the Davis Cup in tennis, to ensure there is a chance for lower ranked countries to progress up the rankings each year, but they have to earn that right, or under-performing nations can be relegated out of the ‘full’ qualifying zone. There are far too many weak nations in the qualifying process that are not progressing, nor benefiting from being hammered in every fixture. That has contributed to dull, meaningless, predictable international football.
'Wake me up when the real football returns'
A few years ago, I lived in leafy, posh Belsize Park (albeit in a post-college shared bombsite of a flat) and made the unwise decision to go and watch an England match in a pub there. It was the usual rubbish. I cannot recall if it was during the Left-Sided Problem days or the Can Fwank And Stevie Work Together era, but it doesn’t really matter: it was England, in a pub, and thus it was absolutely toilet.
The bloke standing behind me yelled, non-stop, for 90 minutes. “You slaaaaaag…. Kick him…. Go on son…. We’ve got no passion, that’s what’s wrong with them…. McManaman you mug, get stuck in.”
You know the sort of thing. He was all-set to have himself a well-deserved aneurysm. I turned round to give him the Paddington Bear and… it was our local dentist. Smallish chap, very mild-mannered. Normally wouldn't say boo to a glass of mouthwash. Enjoying a chance to be someone else, because Ingerlund were on the telly.
And that’s England, for me. A chance for people to act like a complete weapon, safe in the knowledge that it’s not only tolerated but encouraged. You’ve godda ave pashun, right? That’s what’s wrong with the players, right? If only everyone acted like they really, really cared, then we would definitely win. A holiday from reality? A holiday in hell?
"No disrespect to the INSERT NAME OF FOREIGN COUNTRY lads but how many of them would get in our team?” How many of them would want to, more to the point.
You can keep the whole miserable lot of it, your No Surrender and your plastic chairs and the lumpen, leaden pea-hearted frauds of the Premier League getting turned over by the first half-decent side they face. I’m with Andrew Cole; I’ve retired from it. Wake me up when the real football is back.
'Turbulent times away from field often brings about unity in game'
When was the heyday of international football? Perhaps the 1930s, with the birth of the World Cup, the first sustained interchange of ideas between Europe and the New World. Maybe the 1950s, when the optimism of the post-war years coincided with the explosion of the game and the highest concentration of great footballers in history. Or you might say the decade between around 1974 and 1984, when many of history’s great international teams - Cruyff’s Holland, Beckenbauer’s West Germany, Platini’s France, Socrates and Zico’s Brazil - reached their zenith, when the European Championships and the Copa America truly arrived, when the World Cup first began to feel like a truly global tournament.
What links all three of these eras? They were eras when the very idea of the nation-state was being renegotiated: through fascism, decolonisation, economic liberalisation or Cold War. In these turbulent times, international football has often played in the anchor role in helping to define, to crystallise, to exemplify a nation’s self-image. Hungary v West Germany in 1954 was never just about football. Nor the Argentinian team of 1978, or the Italy team of 1934. (Contrast with, say, Brazil 1970 or Spain 2010, which essentially were just about football.) Honduras and El Salvador actually went to war over a game of football once. Some people will do anything for those Fifa ranking points.
At its best, international football means something. It symbolises something larger: progress, ideology, identity, system. And in a world being washed ever more inexorably on a tide of authoritarianism and populism, of fences and walls, of feuding ideas and hardening borders, one of the unforeseen consequences may be that international football, sport’s ailing elder statesman, may derive a renewed auxiliary relevance. Or, to put it another way: we’re all going to war with each other, but at least it’ll give the World Cup a bit of zing.
Incidentally, you may notice one other commonality among the three eras named above: they were the eras in which England were utterly useless. Perhaps our current plight will herald a new golden age for everyone else.
'Do away with qualifiers on a Thursday night'
Let’s be frank, as the vast majority of other nations would confirm, there is nothing wrong with international football. Do Iceland think it needs saving? Portugal? Wales? That England are so shamefully paralysed by caution and anxiety is our problem, not the game’s, and the only solution is better management, coaching, development and a shifting of priorities. But such practical measures that would help, reducing the Premier League to 18 teams and introducing a winter break, will now never be passed. The snake has swallowed the pig and the Premier League’s profits are paramount.
Many England fans may propose pre-qualifying tournaments to rid us of fixtures such as England vs Lithuania. What nerve! Such po-faced tut-tutting about 'minnows' and ‘elite international football’ from people who support England (England!) undermines the whole spirit of international sport. As if 'elite' international teams should not have to concern themselves with smaller ones, that international football should be about the traditional powers and that the qualification for the European Championship and World Cup should be whittled down by a second-tier pre-group phase.
It makes one think that people who believe this stuff are tired of football, tired of adventure, tired of variety and feel that 'mismatches' that rarely turn out to be any such thing degrade the more established nation. So, let's be clear. Uefa and Fifa have made a pig’s breakfast of the format of the finals but there is nothing wrong with every nation starting from the same point. International football is international football, not another tiresome Super League cartel that hogs all the money and defends its own interests. It only becomes 'elite' when we get to the finals and sometimes not even then but if we play the same seven or eight teams every couple of years what makes the finals special? A European nation has every right to start the European Championship on an equal footing as has a member of Fifa with the World Cup.
Having said that, qualifiers on Thursday nights and Sunday evenings are the real outrage. Bring back Wednesdays and Saturdays, please.
'Condense friendlies into a short period in the summer'
The biggest issue with international football in Europe is there are too many easy qualifying games, a series of boring mismatches in which the best teams go through the motions, confident that, even if they drop points, they have enough fixtures to ensure the mistake is not costly.
To prevent this, the minnows should be made to face each other in a play-off to qualify for the group stage. I’m thinking countries like Andorra, Armenia, Gibraltar, San Marino, Cyprus, Malta, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg, Faroe Islands, Moldova and Scotland (I’m joking, I’m joking) who have no hope of qualifying for a major tournament and go into each game with damage limitation as their only objective.
It is dull, predictable and adds unnecessary fixtures to the schedule. The smallest sides should have to prove they are the best of the rest before going into the main draw. This could easily be done using Fifa world rankings.
If these “walkover” games are removed, we could even look at removing summer qualifiers and play mini tournaments outside of World Cup and European Championship summers.
They would be optional, of course, but I’m sure the strongest nations would rather play in one of these than arrange some meaningless friendlies scattered randomly throughout the year. It would also ease the burden on players during the season, freeing up weekends in the spring and autumn. In this country, it could even finally mean the introduction of a winter break.
Why not condense international “friendlies” into a short period in June and the start of July, replicating the conditions national teams will face when they reach a European Championship or World Cup?
It would be far more interesting to watch England take on Germany, Russia, Brazil, Paraguay, USA and Australia, Cameroon and Egypt in a two-groups of four tournament in June than watch them face any of those sides in a friendly in November for example.
'Get rid of qualifiers altogether'
It's time to get rid of friendlies and qualifying. Replace them with clusters of international games like rugby's autumn internationals, all of which are competitive.
During the current international break Wednesday night's friendly against Germany was far, far more enticing than Sunday's World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, but it is the fact that only the latter is competitive that is precisely the problem.
What will we learn from England playing Lithuania and Malta twice in this campaign? Precisely nothing, I'd suggest.
England will win at home and away against those teams without playing particularly well and both the result and the performance will give Gareth Southgate no help when it comes to picking his best team for the tournament itself. Just look at Euro 2016 qualifying: England won 10 out of 10, scoring 31 goals and conceding three. Then they were knocked out by Iceland in France.
Teams should be allowed to 'challenge' teams a certain number, say 10, places above them in the rankings, with games decided on as fair a basis as possible by Fifa. Places at each major tournament are then decided on performance over the previous two-year period.
International football will probably never be 'saved', in all honesty, but this could help.
'Create a two-tier qualifying system'
A major reason why international breaks are dreaded is that qualification match-ups tend to be uninspiring. Take this weekend, which includes Italy vs Albania, Azerbaijan vs Germany, Luxembourg vs France and of course England vs Lithuania.
Four of those teams are former World Cup winners and across those games there will be plenty of hugely exciting players on show. The problem is that they will be up against teams who will invariably attempt to make up for a huge disparity in quality by sticking everyone behind the ball. Before long everyone is longing for a return to club football.
The solution is a two-tier qualification system, which would mean that rather than the current mismatches, we would be looking forward this weekend to games like Italy vs Germany and France vs England. Instead of a lack of interest from TV companies, those two matches could both be on Sunday afternoon, one before the other, and it would be called something ludicrous like 'Heavyweight Sunday'.
You'll tell me I'm ignoring the smaller countries, but they would benefit from the system too, as they would have something tangible to aspire to - promotion to the top tier - rather than the never-ending cycle of damage limitation.
Who knows, perhaps they might not get as much of a buzz testing themselves against Jake Livermore and Jesse Lingard as we think they do.
The alternative is the same dreary two-year qualification campaigns that we have currently. Surely something different is at least worth trying?