International Football: An Unwanted Sideshow?

International Football for England used to be something relished by each and every player; stadiums were filled with passion and each and every game mattered. To play for one’s country was to fulfil a dream many could only ever hope for. The national anthem was belted out loudly by the players and thousands of fans together as one, with fortitude and a desire to showcase your country was to be feared, yet also respected on the International stage. However, record low attendances, world rankings and an overall negative atmosphere are infecting the mood of the national side now.


England, a team who domestically arguably hold the best league in the world, now look to be fading and losing the interest of football fans when the International break rolls round in an unenviable manner. Nowadays, the break from the Premier League is entirely disliked by the majority of fans; the lack of interest truly leaves the national team in a sad state of affairs, which only seem to be worsening with time.


This lack of interest is best demonstrated in the attendances to England’s last two home games. Against Norway, 40,181 attended the first match after a dismal World Cup, unsurprising with so little to be gained in a friendly game, but disappointing nonetheless. This season, seven Premier League teams have a higher average attendance so far than this (, epitomising the lack of attractiveness England games pose. It’s no longer the pinnacle, nor is it as awe-inspiring to be at Wembley for fixtures; an unfortunate truth that needs to be digested by those with the power to make change, like the FA.


Against San Marino, the attendance went up to 55,990 and those 55,990 saw absolutely nothing to get excited about or reinvigorate the passion that once was. At least the overall reaction to the game would have you believe this. Even goal scorer on the night, Andros Townsend, felt the need to defend a 5-0 win and the fact England couldn’t attain a more humiliating score line against their counterparts.


No result would have been enough to win detached fans back, most probably, but when a 5-0 win only adds to people’s misery, you know something is seriously wrong. The FA would be best to acknowledge this as soon as possible, rather than only adding spasmodic changes to things. It’s now worth looking at what possible action can be taken to best utilise (or not) the new Wembley. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture and deserves to be treated as such in the games it holds. Not only this, but also the atmosphere it creates and impression it leaves on fans who visit.


What does it take to get people to care again? The FA can’t solely be blamed; much responsibility lies with the team itself, of course. Truthfully, you would have to say the performances at International tournaments have to improve, but that’s obvious. It could perhaps have something to do with the accessibility to the games, when it’s a lesser fixture played in the week fans simply do not flock to games. Why is that?


The suggestion to host games at stadiums across the country has been popularised this week and it makes sense. On say, a Thursday night, when the majority of the public is in the heart of a busy week of work and their general schedule is crammed, taking time out of it to travel to London isn’t an option. There are a vast amount of fans that live outside London but would relish the chance to go to games.


Of course, it’s the capital and the spiritual (and actual) home of the English game, it merits a place holding the majority of games. However, moving the matches to stadiums across the country means that those fans that don’t usually go simply get the chance to. It’s not just about getting more people to merely attend games, but as mentioned, to get those who attend to value the experience and genuinely get excited by the prospect of seeing the national team play. If you move games across the country, you will find these passionate fans. Believe it or not, they still do exist.


It’s still strange to observe though. The Premier Leagues superiority is expansive over that of the International game as of late. Most have a strong opinion about Roy Hodgson, Wayne Rooney or why it is England struggle, but most don’t really have the emotional willpower to feel excited by these Qualifying games. The San Marino game almost felt like an obligatory chore for fans, shackled by the chains of unwarranted optimism when it comes to the bigger picture and possible success in Euro 2016 itself.


The one thing the Premier League offers is the element of the unexpected, week after week. International football simply can’t offer this to anywhere near the same degree. Despite spirited performances from Scotland, Kazakhstan and Poland, such efforts are far less consistent and are equalled by just as many humiliating defeats for teams like Gibraltar and San Marino. Structurally, this is to be expected. Teams like San Marino are thrown into groups with the World Powers of football in and left to defend their nation’s pride as best as possible in entirely unfair football clashes. If you have players who aren’t even professional footballers playing, it undermines the fundamental values of the game internationally. Yes, it’s commendable to see these players try, but in the end it’s not really beneficial for themselves, the opposition and football as a whole.


Hodgson himself has had his say on the matter. To be specific the concept of pre-qualification for the so called smaller teams, moving the responsibly onto UEFA, which is fair enough. He said, “It’s a subject for UEFA but it would create a lot of logistical calendar issues and moral issues”. Logistically, it’s a ridiculous notion that these games can’t be implemented whatsoever, if you can produce one set of qualification games, you can produce another set for these “lesser teams” too. Morally, what good does it do San Marino to have defeat after defeat, humiliation after humiliation? It absolutely doesn’t do any.


The ‘unwanted sideshow’ that may now be International Football, at least from an England’s fans perspective, is proportionate. This post World Cup pain was expected to be reflected in poor attendance and a lack of interest unanimously from fans. England might find themselves at a new low (18th and likely to fall outside the Top 20 soon) in the world rankings, but they still find themselves in the top percentage of World Football teams. The English might have invented the sport and such a ranking is the bare minimum expected, but spare a thought for San Marino. 60 losses in as many games and we can’t even be slightly satisfied by a 5-0 win?

It’s time to accept the past and try and move through the group as smoothly and attractively as possible, avoiding at all costs a repeat of 2008. As painful as it is to see the Premier League removed temporarily, the International break may as well be embraced and prove a worthy time to develop a currently underperforming England side. For now, fans just needs something to revitalise them, ultimately this can only happen over time and eventually some kind of success in France in 2016. The sideshow can only become the main show if England actually win something, let’s live in hope this will be sooner rather than later.

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