Monday, December 05, 2022

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Old rivalries give new meaning to international friendlies

So this week we are given what may be regarded as a brief holiday jaunt by footballing supporters, international friendly football dominates the agenda but there is nothing really at risk bar pride. Nonetheless, I do not agree with some assertions expressed in recent years that international friendlies offer no real worth.

This Wednesday evening England take on Germany in Berlin, a fixture that has gathered history over the years with many famous significant clashes. Games such as this will always attract interest regardless of context because of their nature and past, when the 'major' footballing nations compete honour is a major factor. As with most news stories, the English press will always be particularly prone to over-hyping events, but this fixture will have that extra edge to it in Germany and will be of interest to footballing aficionado's across Europe as well.



Even though they may be the scourge of many club managers, friendlies still hold great significance for those in charge of the national teams. How else can the likes of Fabio Capello be expected to try formations and players that he would not be fully confident dropping into an important qualifying match. The idea has always been that friendlies are for exactly this, trial and error with tactics being put into motion in a real game rather than just on the training pitch. The problem is that with trial and error comes agitation amongst fans, ticket prices are still usually high for friendlies and the cost brings a demand for a good performance.

This obviously leaves the international friendly as the footballing equivalent of being trapped between a rock and a hard place, the public demand to be entertained up against the manager's ability to try new ways to improve the team. Ideally the FA would encourage fans with lower ticket prices, thus ensuring sell-outs and a willing atmosphere.   When Sven Goran Eriksson was England manager he found himself lambasted for making so many substitutes, on one occasion changing all the team except the goalkeeper, it was claimed that by doing this he was not respecting the worth of an England cap. All this criticism was a little unfair, especially when you consider how some players that were not initially considered for England went on to have meaningful international careers after catching the eye in non-competitive games. It is easy to forget for example how at the 2002 World Cup Trevor Sinclair became a significant member of the side, likewise before the likes of Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge became mainstays, Chris Powell was a competent stand-in.

Unfortunately, the spate of injuries that have affected tonight's game may well have a detrimental effect on the spectacle, it is certainly adding fuel to the wrath of Premiership managers. Arsene Wenger has questioned the need for this friendly when England do not play again until March, and whilst he has a point to be concerned with it's timing in the schedule, it is unfair to say that little can be learnt from the experience particularly when judged against the level of opposition. The loss of Theo Walcott will naturally hurt Arsenal more than England at this point, but his injury is just a case of awful luck. Many more injuries will occur between now and March and Fabio Capello will need to be aware of his second and third choice options, the friendly against Germany can only provide greater insight into this.

Obviously, managers in the Premiership have no real allegiance to England, they are paid to maintain the interests of their club, but at the same time they should never get in the way of a player's desire to play for their country. The club versus country debate has become a worrying distraction over recent years. Jaime Carragher made his own commitments clear and in that case England are better off without his attitude. Similarly not enough has been made of John Terry's actions a year ago. The England captain is a strong and usually committed player, but when it came to Steve McClaren's last stand against Croatia in the deciding Euro 2008 qualifier he was nowhere to be seen, and yet three days later he started for Chelsea. It should be argued that a willingness to play for England regardless of a game's value and the cost of personal injury, is the committed attitude that England needs and deserves. So the allure of facing Germany albeit in a friendly, is an opportunity not to be passed up whatever the timing.



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