England’s turgid performance against Wales at Wembley on Tuesday night was simply the latest in a very long line of mediocrity from Fabio Capello’s side. Plus ça change, no matter the coach, of course. It is now so long since England put in a genuinely exciting performance that fans under the age of 20 are unlikely to remember it. (England 4-1 Holland, Wembley, 1996, for those who can’t).
Yet, it is not solely England that fails to thrill on the international stage, even if Capello’s men offer a particularly unique brand of insomnia-inducing fare. Indeed, international football is now such a poor cousin to the latter stages of the Champions League that it is genuinely hard to muster any excitement for the non-club game. Last summer’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa was a much discussed case in point, of course, with 64 matches of dull, uninspiring, negative and often disjointed football performed by shattered players.
Even the tournament’s deserved winners Spain, with a plethora of Barcelona-bred tika-taka stars, failed to truly spark into the thrilling brand of the game served up by the nation’s champion club. The final, which descended into a level of thuggery rarely witnessed at the game’s highest level, seemed a good précis for the tournament as a whole, where negativity was the dominant emotion.
Yet the World Cup finals tournament is by no means the worst of international football. That, seemingly, belongs to the European qualifying tournaments; a never-ending cycle of the depressingly familiar and homogeneous. Replete with the endlessly mediocre, Euro-zone qualification for European Nations Championships and World Cups now rarely delivers excellence.
Perhaps not helped by the vast expansion in teams from Eastern Europe, and the very real need to improve standards in some of Europe’s smaller nations, but there are now so few games of genuine quality during qualification that fans are deserting in droves. Wembley, more than 13,000 short of capacity for the international equivalent of a local derby, was one of the fuller European grounds this week.
Just 16,000 watched World champions Spain and there were only 8,000 for Italy;s match in Genoa. In Russia the giant Luzhniki remained half-full – or empty depending on your persuasion – for matches with Ireland and Macedonia. Only in Germany, where fans enjoy a buoyant national team and reasonable prices, was the ground bursting at the seams this week.
With mercy perhaps, the game’s club administrators have decided to put down the suffering beast. Well, end a third of meaningless international friendlies that have become a never-ending excuse for ‘experimentation’ that cheats supporters with a carousel of substitutions and disruption.
Manchester United chief executive David Gill, in his dual role both on the Football Association board and as a leading member of the European Club Association (ECA), led the charge this week in attempting to reduce international friendlies from 21 every two years to 14.
“These topics have been discussed at length,” said Gill, an ECA board member.
The ECA hopes to reduce the number of single dates and “end friendlies in August and June and reducing it to meaningful games plus the Euros and the World Cup. Ideally we would have six double dates over the period. That gives the right balance while being a reduction for the interests of the national teams against what the clubs want.
“Six games a year is the best from a club point of view. Before Euro 2012 we have to release players two weeks before the tournament and there is space for two or three friendly matches then.”
The proposed changes are born of club self-service but, if enacted,will have the positive effect of ensuring no future summer friendlies that add little to the calendar and increase the burden on the best players. Tournament football will remain unaffected, although the ECA is on an unwavering path to extract ever more compensation for the players used in international football.
None of this guarantees an increase in quality though and international managers may well be faced with even less time to construct fluid teams. Perhaps that is irrelevant. After all, Capello has largely wasted three years and £18 million in salary deploying the same failed strategy and players as his predecessors. The ‘golden generatio’n now an allegory for the handcuffs around each successive national team coach.
Indeed, on Tuesday against Wales Capello ignored calls to rely on the youthful zest of Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and others. Instead, back came 33-year-old Frank Lampard to anchor, alongside Gareth Barry and James Milner, one of the biggest-boned English midfields in recent times. No surprises in the glacial speed of England’s movement then, with 117 FIFA-ranked Wales genuinely unlucky not to snatch a late point.
England round off qualification against Montenegro in Podgorica next month before Capello embarks on an eight month farewell tour that is likely to take in a plethora of utterly meaningless friendlies before England bow out of Euro2012 in Poland and Ukraine at the first knock-out stage.
Mercifully, just in time some might say, there is United away at the Reebok this weekend to distract. And for once Sir Alex Ferguson may have escaped international fortnight with no fresh injuries.