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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019

Is it time to radically re-think international football?

It has been nearly eight years since England last lost a qualifier, while the Italians are unbeaten in over a decade.

England's (left to right) John Stones, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli and Kyle Walker after the World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium against Lithuania.
England's (left to right) John Stones, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli and Kyle Walker after the World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley Stadium against Lithuania.
Image: Nick Potts

Updated at 21.38

ON SUNDAY, ENGLAND comfortably won a qualifying game. This was not an unusual or in any way surprising phenomenon. In fact, it has been nearly eight years since they last lost a qualifier — a 1-0 defeat by Ukraine in October 2009.

In 22 home World Cup qualifiers since the turn of the century, they have lost just once – their very first one against Germany in 2000, winning 19 of these games since.

Moreover, including the Euros, England have lost just six qualifying games in total since the turn of the new millennium — the sides that have beaten them are Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia (twice) and Northern Ireland.

Of the aforementioned encounters in question, only the Northern Irish match was considered a big shock.

Yet through this run, England have rarely if ever been exceptional. Instead, the Three Lions have been so successful because they have largely been up against quite mediocre sides. Once a major tournament rolls around, English teams tend to be somewhat exposed as they come up against much better opposition.

And they are not the only team who have had a remarkably easy time of it in recent qualification periods. Italy are now unbeaten in 55 World Cup and Euros qualifiers. Their last loss was more than a decade ago, as they were beaten in September 2006 2-1 by France.

Even Ireland have a very decent record in this regard. In 17 qualifiers since Martin O’Neill took over, they have lost just twice.

Stephen Gleeson with Sverrir Ingi Ingason Last night's Ireland-Iceland friendly was a forgettable affair. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Of course, there is a certain charm and romance in seeing minnows confront superstars. But for the most part, these exercises in footballing decorum are dull, predictable and utterly lifeless affairs. And that’s without even mentioning the countless forgettable friendlies such as last night’s match between Ireland and Iceland. As Brian Kerr said of the game.

We had only two players that you’d consider regulars, Robbie Brady and James McClean, and Iceland had three.

“The match is pitched as an international between the team that got to the semi-finals of the Euros in the summer [Iceland were knocked out in the quarter-finals] and the Republic of Ireland when really it was the Republic of Ireland’s second-string, and in some cases third-string, against Iceland with most of their best players not present, gone back to their clubs or not selected.”

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in Euro ’88, Ireland qualifying felt like a genuinely remarkable achievement. They were one of eight teams to travel to West Germany. This summer in France, they were one of 24. By 2026, they could be one of 46 teams competing in the World Cup, compared with the 23 others involved in Italia ’90.

Moreover, imagine Ireland having to qualify in first place from a three-team group that included Soviet Union and France, as was the case ahead of the 1974 World Cup. Or needing to be one of two teams to progress from a group that also featured France, Netherlands, Belgium and Cyprus for the ’82 World Cup. Ireland teams of the past are often unfavourably compared to present sides because of their failure to reach major tournaments, but the greater context is seldom taking into consideration.

But getting back to Gareth Southgate’s men, there was perhaps one slightly unusual aspect of England’s otherwise routine 2-0 win over Lithuania. Their two goalscorers on Sunday, Jermain Defoe and Jamie Vardy, both ply their trade at clubs currently in the Premier League’s bottom six.

This situation would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Consider the bedrock of Alex Ferguson’s first great Man United side — the central defensive pairing of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. The latter won just 22 caps for England, while the former didn’t earn any at senior level. By contrast, at the weekend, they were reliant on Burnley’s Michael Keane and Man City’s John Stones — two players who are undoubtedly promising but have a long way to go before they can be considered great. And this is a nation with much better resources and a bigger talent pool to draw from than most.

So what do all these facts amount to? Well, basically, they tell you that international football is less competitive, prestigious and entertaining than ever.

The Welsh team, who looked ordinary enough at the Aviva Stadium on Friday, are ranked 12th in the world.

It is also probably the reason why the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick often excel with the Irish team but are far less dominant in English football.

A handful of elite countries aside, in international football, you are more than likely to come up against a team largely made up of Championship-standard players or worse.

Increasingly, elite coaches are sticking to club football, perhaps because often, complex or sophisticated tactics are virtually impossible to instil in a side that plays only a couple of games over the course of the year with the personnel constantly changing to boot. Antonio Conte was the one anomaly at Euro 2016 and it’s no coincidence that he managed to overachieve with a fairly unremarkable Italy team.

Of course, all this does not mean international football is not worth watching. It is still capable of producing great sporting moments, a couple of which were evident in the Euros last summer. But managers who take the old-fashioned view that it remains the pinnacle of the game cannot be taken seriously any more.

The Euro 2016 final, for instance, was a perfect example of how low the overall quality of the international game has become. It says it all that Eder, the Portuguese striker who scored the winning goal during the game in question, has managed just five goals in 24 appearances for a Lille side who are currently hovering six points above the relegation zone in Ligue 1.

Meanwhile, Italy beat Albania 2-0 on Friday night to extend their unbeaten run in qualifying. At this rate, it could be another decade before they lose again.

But one partial solution to this problem would be to introduce more of a Champions League-style system where weaker footballing countries must go through qualifying rounds in order to compete with more successful seeded teams. This should, at least, cut down the abundance of pointless one-sided affairs.

International friendlies, meanwhile, could be scrapped. If managers want to give untried players a chance, then they can bring back ‘B’ matches and at least be honest and call them ‘B’ games, as opposed to last night’s charade at the Aviva.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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