The Future Of The International Game

After surviving an earthquake (which was not a very big deal) and now awaiting a hurricane (which is), I have some time to think about the future of international soccer, and that future does not look bright.  By now it is cliché to talk about how much less interesting the international game is than the club game, how the tactics are less sophisticated, and how it is less entertaining from an objective view.  And the international game has the added disadvantage of the bloated, corrupt entities that are FIFA, the continental confederations, and the national FAs.

I have been wondering what the international game will look like after the 2014 World Cup.  The vile, evil, kleptocrat Ricardo Teixiera, the President of the CBF and, according to one reputable (if hyperbolic) source, the worst person in the entire world, is probably going to take on Michel Platini for FIFA President after Sepp Blatter steps down.  Platini is no white knight, but there are very few who would be worse than Teixiera.  Regardless of what happens, but especially if Teixiera wins, football will be the biggest loser.

In his most recent blog post, Bill Archer wrote the following (see the link above for the full column):

[T]he European federations, who represent the financial, developmental and media engines which have made football what it is, believe that the biggest problem the sport faces is the fact that the vast majority of federations within FIFA don’t understand where all that lovely money actually comes from, namely the big clubs who create the big stars that everyone is willing to shell out all that big money to watch.

In fact of course, the problem isn’t that the, shall we say, “less prominent” footballing countries don’t know where the money comes from: they know perfectly well.

The problem is that they don’t care. They have the votes, and thus the power, to keep things exactly as they are and they have no intention of giving up all those mounds of money and power just because it might be the right thing to do, and if a bunch of prominent players break down while playing in yet another meaningless “friendly” staged solely for the purpose of fattening up the Presidential office budgets of a bunch of two mule federations, well, as they say in the Arctic: tough titties.

Archer is absolutely correct.  However, this is another element to this story which he does not write about (unsurprisingly, given that it is outside of the scope of his column.)  Around the world, devotion to local football clubs has been on the decline and loyalty has shifted to the top teams of the top leagues.  The best football in the world is played by a very small but very prominent number of clubs spread throughout Spain, England, Germany, and Italy.  The top clubs of these four nations have the most money, the most visibility, and have hoarded the world’s top players.  The best club in the world will always be on of their number, FIFA World Club Cup be damned.  Around the world, including the United States, local league suffers in comparison because it is remarkably easy to watch the top European teams and players on television, and more people would rather watch a top league on television than go watch their own local team, which can be distant, expensive, or dangerous.*

The European clubs realize this, even if, as Archer points out, the European national federations do not.  The super clubs cannot wait to pull away.  Right now they have agreed to a peace of sorts with FIFA and UEFA, mostly around the Champions League, but the clubs make the Champions League, not the other way around.  If Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus decide to hold their own tournament, the Champions League will fall apart, especially if those teams invite some historical powers (Porto, Ajax, Benfica, Marseilles, Lyon), the Qatar-owned, powers-to-be Malaga and Paris St. Germaine, and a few others.  No club would refuse that kind of visibility or money (which would be shared among the clubs only, cutting out UEFA entirely.)

I have talked about all this before, and I regret boring (all four of) my readers by repeating it, but I am interested in what the international teams will look like when the clubs no longer comply with FIFA and UEFA.  No nation will suffer more than England.  The EPL hates the FA, and the clubs only release players for international duty grudgingly.  For non-calendar events, like youth World Cups, the top English clubs don’t release their English players at all (they do however release foreign players as per contract agreement.)  One wonders if English players (or non-English EPL players) will be released when FIFA coercion no longer exists.  I suspect no.  I also suspect that the top English players, despite their lip service to the cause, will secretly be relieved.  One gets the sense they don’t actually want to play for England, a suspicion confirmed in the past few months by Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.  Both recent retirees have blasted international duty and their fellow England players.  Not coincidentally, both were also career players under Alex Ferguson, who has made no secret of his hatred for the international game.

I suspect this is the trickle before the flood, and within two decades at most the international game will be completely unrecognizable.

Footnotes: 

On the BBC’s World Football Phone-In, North American correspondent Sean Wheelock ranted about American fans who don’t support their local teams.  I strongly disagree with Wheelock’s assessment.  Fans have no duty to support a local team.  Sport is a business and a past time–in that order–not a cause, as any fan of women’s football knows all too well (and I would ask Wheelock why he doesn’t have the same passion and sanctimony about the WPS.)  Around the world, fans prefer European leagues to their local ones.  Leagues around the world, including MLS cannot compete with the money, talent, or history.  In a world and era as closely networked as here and now, the tradition of supporting your local club no long holds the same meaning.  Especially if you did not grow up supporting that club.

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