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International Friendlies: What is the point?

November 16, 2010

Over the last few days and up until Prince William announced that he was getting married, the only news that I seem to have been seeing was updates on who has most recently pulled out of their international squad and why.

At the last count, 11 players have withdrawn from the Northern Ireland squad, 9 from the Scotland panel, 6 from Republic of Ireland and 5 from England. From the four home nations with fixtures during this week, that’s an incredible 31 players in total.

And all four teams are playing their matches at home within the British Isles. None of the players are based outside of the United Kingdom so their journeys home will at most be a 90 minute domestic flight. It’s not like any of the teams are travelling halfway across the world to play a friendly in a neutral country for purely monetary reasons. Brazil, who are doing exactly that, are set to take on Argentina in Doha yet Mano Menezes has only been hit with two withdrawals from his panel of 23. Argentina has likewise, had two withdrawals.

The last time England did something similar was a year ago for their clash with Brazil that was supposed to help them clinch the 2018 World Cup through the powers of football politics. The game was also played in Qatar and the starting line-up for that game featured Jermaine Jenas, Wes Brown and Ben Foster after a host of the original squad withdrew. None of those three players have played a minute for England since and only Foster is the current squad.

So given the apathy of the players, what is the point of an international friendly match?

From what I have read and followed of football, there always tends to be three arguments lobbied in favour of friendly matches between nations. They are:

  1. They allow the manager a chance to try new things in terms of personnel and tactics
  2. Fringe players are given an opportunity to play themselves into the reckoning for the next competitive game
  3. Football associations for the respective countries can use the clashes as money spinners for their coffers

But the chances of the above three actually being able to happen are severely reduced if Nigel Worthington is without a full line-up or Fabio Capello is unable to try a new partner alongside his leading striker Wayne Rooney.

When naming his original squad of 23 players, Nigel Worthington may well have planned to deploy Northern Ireland in a completely new system. Going against his regular selections of 4-4-2, he could have been playing to copy the Blackpool style of football with a fluid three-man attacking leading the line. Unlikely but he may have been his plan until McCourt, Lafferty and Davis all pulled out. Three of Northern Ireland’s more gifted players would surely be at the centre of any major changes made by the manager so without them, he is unable to get his more senior players involved.

Of course, even more worrying for Northern Ireland fans seems to be that Nigel doesn’t have a tactical plan in mind at all for Morocco. He has chosen to replace a left-back, centre-back and right-back with three replacement right-backs and made no efforts to replace the other withdrawals with like-for-like understudies. Instead, he had called up whoever he can get his hands on.

As for the fringe players, the international friendlies have done very little to prove useful towards their cause or even fruitful if a strong performance is produced. In the last 15 months, England have played 17 international matches. 10 were competitive games taking in the end of World Cup qualifying, the 2010 World Cup itself and the beginnings of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. The other 7 were friendly international matches against the likes of Netherlands, Brazil, Egypt, Japan and Mexico.

In those seven unimportant matches, Fabio Capello used 40 different players. In the ten seemingly important games, Capello used 36 different players. Of course, 4 fewer players over 3 more games indicate at least a smidge of consistent selection but not by much. The basic implication seems to be that Capello is just as likely to try new players in a competitive situation.

In fact in the competitive games, only 8 players played in 70% of the fixtures and can consider themselves regulars. They are Glen Johnson, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry, James Milner, John Terry and Frank Lampard. Add Rio Ferdinand to the list as barring the injury that kept him out of the World Cup, he would have also played enough to be considered regular. In the friendly matches except for Ashley Cole, who missed four matches through injury, the same players are joined by Shaun Wright-Phillips as the only ones to have played in 70% of the games.

Their constant selection even goes to show that the back-up players are used rather sparingly when supposedly they should be given the chance to force their way into the reckoning. Having regulars out injured does make it easier for them to get a chance of real substance and be able to play the majority of the game but once a preferred player returns, they are unlikely to stay in the team.

And finally there is the money element of the games. Without the stars of the teams featuring who is likely to go. Apart from France, the opponents for the other three home nations are not filled with the cream of European talent. Norway, Morocco and the Faroe Islands do not possess a world-class talent Messi, Xavi or Ronaldo that will have fans falling over themselves to pick up tickets so with the knowledge that their own team will be far from first choice, what will make them buy a ticket? There will naturally be the fans happy to watch their nation regardless of the personnel but for the game to be profitable a high attendance is needed and on a cold November evening, the thought of watching a quickly put together team playing out a boring 90 minutes is an exciting thought.

So again I ask, what is the point of an international friendly match?

If players are going to drop out because they feel a slight twinge and want a week off ahead of their club side’s big game next weekend… there isn’t one.

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