England need more Scotland and less Fishland

in ESPN

We won’t dwell too much on the legion failings of the England football team. It’s a tale of woe we’re all familiar with by now. The penny’s even dropped for Alan Shearer, for crying out loud. But aside from coaching, passing, second-rate managers and overhyped players (and that bloody brass band) there’s one less discussed factor that will play its part in England’s inevitable upsetting exit in the early knock-out rounds of France 2016.
A lack of competitive international football.
And the short-term solution to that should be … more international friendlies.
Part of the reason why England’s players never fail to disappoint in the tournaments is that they are just not used to playing in pressure games for their country. For as long as I can remember, English footballers have shrunk in that white or red shirt, while their opponents have been inspired by their own nation’s colours. And, dare I say it, also by a chance to stick it up the haughty English, inventors and self-styled moral guardians of the world’s game. And why shouldn’t they?
Even the newspapers have woken up to the fact that the odd draw or defeat against the likes of Switzerland would matter not a jot
Time after time in qualifying, England will have the better of whatever bunch of post-Soviet nobodies and attractive holiday islands that they are pooled with. Successive England teams have never imposed themselves but always done just enough to get an unattractive 2-0 against Molvania in their intimidating concrete fortress, a former gulag; or a brace of workmanlike 2-1s away to Fishland and the up-and-coming tax haven of Santa Minoa, whose goalie, funnily enough Brian, is actually a postman, so he’ll be hoping to deliver a performance tonight ha ha ha; oh God why did I spend my Friday night in the pub watching this?
Once we play your Spains, Italys, Germanys and so on at the actual show, it’s a totally different story. Come tournament time, England are yet again firmly, efficiently and ruthlessly ejected from football’s top table like a rose seller who has snuck into a Michelin-starred restaurant. Results in the main tournament bear little relation to qualifying.
This is not entirely the players’ fault: they are just not used to playing important and intense games for their country. The expanded 24-team tournament means that it’s hugely unlikely that England won’t qualify for France 2016, so they can pootle their way to unattractive wins in front of a half-interested Wembley.
Even the newspapers have kind of woken up to the fact that the odd draw or even a defeat against the likes of Switzerland would matter not a jot, and the “oh well, not the end of the world” attitude is transmitted from the stands to the pitch. This is clearly hopeless preparation for facing the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Thomas Mueller, Xavi or Arjen Robben in a must-win match.
What England need is regular intense matches against well-matched opposition, which is exactly what Tuesday’s ‘friendly’ with Scotland will provide. A hostile crowd, an up-for-it opponent, something on the line. The introduction of a regular home nations tournament would be a massive boost for international football in this part of the world and that should be the immediate short-term goal for the football associations of these isles. Something needs to be done to inject meaning and jeopardy back into international football or it will cease to matter entirely.
Better still, UEFA could do away with the seeding system and instead make countries play their local and historical rivals in a mini-pool to achieve qualification for the tournaments. So England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland duke it out for one spot at the 2020 tournament. Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Austria for another. Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Romania and so on.
It would inject exciting, not to say highly-charged, competition into the interminable qualifying process, and ensure that when teams do actually make it to a tournament they are battle hardened.
International football in its current form has become a tedious distraction from the real business of Premier League and Champions League, and that is a terrible shame. Representing your country should be the pinnacle, and a home nations championship could be our lead to showing the world that we think international football deserves to be back on top.

This article first appeared on ESPN.co.uk

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