International football is great. Whether with the Copa America, the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers, the Women’s World Cup, or even the U21 European Championships (and various other age group competitions), there’s also been a great deal of the stuff on television recently, bridging the gap between club season nicely with a smorgasbord of football for viewers of almost all tastes.
International football is, however, intrinsically different to club football. Not on the pitch; it’s very much still eleven versus eleven, kicking a ball around with the aim of scoring more goals than the other team, regardless of whether the game involves Fulham or Fiji. No: it’s different in the sense that the models of being a fan are vastly different between club and country. This has many implications for the game, perhaps meaning that the much-heralded “club versus country” debate should be put to bed for good, finally seen as the irrelevance that it is.
Simply put, the different between the two forms is this: club football is, at its core, about inclusion; you can be born anywhere on the planet, but if you’re good enough you can play for any single club, and if you find yourself identifying with one specific club as a supporter, you immediately belong. A key part of Premier League clubs’ marketing strategies has been attempting to win over supporters in far-flung regions of the world, with the ill-fated “39th game” scheme and pre-season tours aiming to take English top flight football to global fans, old and new. It’s the same in other leagues; Bayern spent their winter break in Saudi Arabia for example, while other clubs in Europe spend time in Asia, America and Africa while warming up for the new season. The other end of this stick, of course, is the cynical purchasing of players; many have claimed that Manchester United’s signing of Shinji Kagawa in 2012 had less to do with his outstanding talent than the hordes of potential fans in Japan, while VfL Wolfsburg have tried something similar (but perhaps more overt) with Chinese midfielder Zhang Xizhe.
However, conversely, international football serves to propagate the current geopolitical boundaries of the modern world, with a limited amount of competitors across the world, and eligibility to play for each team much stricter. It’s very different to the club ethos; you require a link to a country if you wish to play for them, whether through place of birth, citizenship, an ancestor or naturalisation. It’s therefore a natural train of thought that a large part, if not an unavoidable part, of being a fan of a national team depends upon the same requirements to actually being able to represent them. After all, one of the big footballing dreams is to lift the World Cup trophy for your team. How can you do that when ineligible for your national team?
Still, this is an issue which has come to light a lot recently as fans of football around the world openly support a nation other than their own. A lot of this, in Britain at least, is borne from a disenchantment with their own national team; international success at the top level of the men’s game seems, at this moment in time at least, a remote prospect for fans of England, for example, and thus it’s quite easy to decide to sack off qualifiers away to Slovenia – whether committing a weekend to travelling to Ljubljana or just watching the ninety minutes on television – and enjoy a bit of South American flair, or keep up with some of Europe’s best sides in the likes of Germany, Spain and France.
Perhaps in another qualifying campaign it’d be similar for fans of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland; while the changes to Euro 2016’s qualification process have allowed all three to challenge quite strongly for a spot in France next summer, their prospects of success are even remoter than those of England, and so it’s certainly easy to see why football fans in Port Talbot, Lisburn or Fife might prefer to watch some of the world’s biggest names play during the international breaks. A strong shot at qualification, though, does certainly make watching the likes of Steven Fletcher and Simon Church attempt a shot at glory for their nations a more palatable prospect.
Many fans around the globe also follow other nations to their own. Obviously, there are a variety of reasons for this which can’t be boiled down to one specific cause in particular, but it tends to be fans of smaller footballing nations looking for a shot at enjoying success. Of course, this isn’t really an issue, but it makes little to no sense. A better shot at success could be attained by something as simple as supporting the smaller nation more vehemently, promoting the national game and helping it to progress through the trials and tribulations of current struggles. A good example of this recently is Australia, a country with a growing footballing culture which has allowed it to push on to becoming a perennial World Cup competitor – competing in every tournament since 2006 – and pushing on a generation of players to greater success, winning the Asian Cup in January 2015 in their home country. The efforts of Australian fans over the past handful of years have certainly played a large part in increasing their profile as a footballing nation, and also ensuring growing prospects in the world game as they look to submit yet stronger squads to future tournaments.
And isn’t that it? At its root, isn’t being a fan entirely about being a part of something? It’s a lot more difficult for someone to be part of something if their loyalties drift with the wind, or aren’t rooted in something solid or palpable. While this is similar to football at club level; you can’t expect to enjoy success anywhere near to the same extent as other fans if your loyalties change or are meaningless; perhaps the largest difference is that club loyalties are decided by more than lottery of birth or upbringing; it’s not exactly a choice, but it’s also not something thrust upon you in the same way that international loyalties are.
As for the club versus country debate – is it not rendered somewhat irrelevant when the way in which you can relate to either club or country is completely different? It would certainly be a lot easier for fans of the game to realise both forms of the game have their pros and cons and to enjoy both for their merits. After all, as great as it is to see your own team having a standout season, it’s brilliant to enjoy a tournament summer, or watch some sort of international super-team like Spain’s mix of Real and Barca or Germany’s mix of Bayern and Dortmund.[separator type=”thin”]
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