So how’s the footballing summer going for you? I guess if you’ve still got the MLS going on on your doorstep, it’s pretty good, but here in Europe it feels as if the curtain should have been brought down straight after Real Madrid won the Champions League final, because the last couple of weeks Nations League games have been the dampest of squibs to round things off.
By Dave Bowler
In normal times, the World Cup should just be kicking off, but with that being pushed back to the end of the year to avoid the presently blistering heat in Qatar – 100 degrees today, incidentally – international football has been largely limited to the Nations League.
While none of the European nations have looked anything special, ironically it’s Argentina’s visit and their thumping wins over Italy and Estonia that have established them among the favourites for the World Cup – all the latest odds can be found here.
This instalment of the Nations League was looking like the relatives that won’t go home at the end of a party, hanging around unwanted, but with a hand welded to your best bottle of whisky.
From a national coach’s viewpoint, you can understand the desire to get their players together to try to get things in place ahead of that World Cup. Yet given the packed schedule we’ve had since Covid first hit, and with an earlier start to next season because of the World Cup, perhaps we might have been better advised to give the players the summer off once the club commitments were finished, the outstanding World Cup qualifiers aside.
Gareth Bale is one who has voiced his concerns over the demands being put on players. That might be a surprise given he’s spent much of the last couple of years playing more golf than football, but he has a point, as does Kevin de Bruyne who called the Nations League “unimportant”.
And there’s the conundrum. For a top tier nation like Belgium, what is the Nations League good for? Absolutely nothing – say it again. After all, does anybody care who wins each tier – can anybody remember who won them last time? But, of course, for a nation like Scotland, the Nations League was the route into the last European Championships, and so it really does matter to a host of other countries.
The Nations League was instituted to get rid of “meaningless” friendlies, but when you look at the teams fielded, and the supporter response, it’s hard not to conclude that many teams are treating them as just that.
The inescapable conclusion is that as far as the fixture list goes, something has to give, and it is UEFA that needs to address that. It is their bloating of the European club competitions – admittedly in an effort to cut off the Super League at the pass – that has largely created the issue and it is not right that domestic associations should have to look into cutting back on their club competitions to offer breathing space.
After all, outside the elite, the clubs need as many games as possible to please supporters and sponsors, as well as increase TV exposure. The imbalance is stark. Liverpool played 63 games last season because of their cup fighting exploits. Newcastle United played 40, because they didn’t have any.
Why do we have to prioritise Liverpool’s needs, at club level, over Newcastle’s – though if they spend their vast new riches well, let’s accept that it will be Newcastle doing the moaning in five years time. We’ve already done away with replays and given European qualifiers a round off in the League Cup, so where does it end? Dumping the League Cup altogether? Maybe that’s good for a couple of clubs, but for the other 90? No.
Which leaves us with international football, and it’s there that something needs to give, certainly in Europe. The top clubs have the top players because of their spending power. It should be the nations that trim their fixtures and give the players a break, not least because it’s in the summer that those breaks are most important and restorative. Get rid of the Nations League, get rid of the friendlies. Have the Euros or the World Cup ever other summer and, in the in between years, let the players put their feet up for an extra couple of weeks.
You never know, it might even improve the product on the pitch.