to Fear, Nothing to Learn?
England remained idle last night, most of the rest of Europe were engaged in
friendly matches in preparation for September's Euro 2000 qualifying matches,
including Poland, which met Spain in the same Warsaw stadium England will visit
on September 8 for the most critical qualifying match of their entire Euro 2000
campaign. Presumably England are relying on the match against Luxembourg on September
4 as a preparatory exercise for the game in Poland four days
later. There are, of course, those who regard a match against almost
anyone as better preparation than a game against Luxembourg, which remains
winless in qualifying competition and which also remained idle last night.
England were about to play Hungary in Budapest late last April, the managers of
England's biggest clubs and many of the supporters of those clubs deluged the
Football Association and new England manager Kevin Keegan with complaints about
"meaningless friendlies." Much of the English football media
joined the clamour. At the same time, some of those same clubs were not averse
to taking their own teams on tour this summer to the far ends of the earth--to
the Far East and Australia--for a series of friendly exhibition matches.
Presumably those are "meaningful" friendlies because they put money in
the club coffers.
have often played in late April over the past 30 years. Most of these
matches have been at home, but the speed and ease of modern air travel make an
away match little more disruptive. Fairly recently, England have made late
April trips to Izmir (April 29, 1987), Budapest (April 27, 1988) and Moscow
(April 29, 1992), and the last two of those were friendly matches. Given
this, it is difficult to see what the all the fuss was about.
Keegan was quick to distance himself from the Hungary friendly, pointing out it had been
arranged during predecessor Glenn Hoddle's tenure, and
he clearly indicated he would not have agreed to it had he been around at the
time it was broached. But the decision to
schedule the friendly was plainly correct, as a matter of comity and underlying
self-interest for the
Football Association and as a matter of team preparation for Hoddle.
about playing friendlies abroad display both arrogance and ingratitude.
International friendlies are a two-way street; national sides playing
friendlies at Wembley Stadium expect their visits will be reciprocated.
Since the beginning of 1994, England have played 34 friendly matches,
including eight in friendly tournaments. Of these 34 matches, 24 have been
played in England and only 10 away, including one which had to be abandoned in
the first half because of some England supporters' violent behaviour. Of
the nine away matches that were completed, three were against third-party
countries playing on neutral ground in a tournament. Thus, since the
beginning of 1994, England have played only six true away friendlies balanced
against the 24 they have played at home.
the two year run-up to the European Championship of 1996, England had no
competitive matches because they automatically qualified for the final
tournament as host nation, and the Football Association desperately searched for opponents willing
to play friendly matches. Hungary were one of several teams that made the
journey to Wembley then, and England had long owed them a return visit.
England still owe several other countries a return visit, as the great imbalance
between home and away friendlies shows. Failure to reciprocate may have
harsh consequences in four or five years if England's bid to host World
Cup 2006 is successful because the Football Association once again will have to look
for a succession of opponents for friendly matches.
The fact is that friendlies are
critical practice and preparation exercises for players who do not play regularly
together. To state what should be obvious, football is a collective effort, a team game, and England cannot
expect to perform well unless the players have practiced and played together
regularly as a team, which means at least once a month during the
season. That is why the Brazilians, who give top priority to their national
side, have always scheduled a spate of friendlies before important competitive
matches. Without the practice and preparation friendlies afford, a national side's
performances as a team will never be as good as the talents of the
individual players would lead one to expect.
It is regrettable that the obvious needs to be stated.
But, to cite only one example, during the debate over the Hungary match,
Sporting Life website, supposedly the most popular football site in Europe,
actually asked its readers: "Should
England be playing meaningless friendlies at this stage of the season?"
This is a classic example of what is known as a loaded question; it assumes the
Of course England should stop playing "meaningless friendlies."
But a friendly match undertaken a month before two crucial European Championship
qualifying matches is not meaningless.
Sporting Life could just as well have asked: "Should England enter crucial European
Championship qualifying matches without having played together as a team for two
or three months and thus without adequate preparation?"
If friendlies are meaningless, it is strange, indeed, that
the same night England were playing Hungary, most of the national sides of
Europe were also indulging
themselves in these purportedly frivolous encounters. Among them were
Sweden, who had a gap of just over two months between their last Euro qualifying
match against Poland on March 31 and their crucial meeting with England at
Wembley on June 5. Sweden played not one, but two friendlies during
that interval. On April 28, while England were in Hungary, Sweden were in
Dublin playing the Republic of Ireland. Sweden also played a friendly at
home against Jamaica on May 27, just a little more than a week before their trip
to Wembley, where they played the socks off England both before and after
England were reduced to 10 men.
England, on the other hand, did not schedule a warmup
friendly just before meeting Sweden; the friendly against Hungary on April 28 was their last before meeting Sweden. Had they not played Hungary, England
would have gone from their Euro qualifier against Poland on March 27 to their
showdown match with Sweden on June 5 without playing. That would have
meant playing the crucial match against Sweden without having played for 10
weeks. But that is in substance what England did because England's leading
club sides, with Keegan's do-anything-to-please cooperation, destroyed whatever
value the Hungary match had as a preparation exercise.
wake of vociferous complaints about the "meaningless" friendly in
Hungary, Keegan, always eager to try to please everyone, sought to barter with the leading clubs to obtain playing personnel.
He reached an agreement with them that he would not choose certain players if others were made available. The clubs did not
keep the agreements they made with Keegan. Many of
those players whom they agreed Keegan could call withdrew from the squad later on dubious claims of
injury and illness only to make miraculous recoveries in time for their clubs'
next matches. All this effectively sabotaged the Hungary match as a
preparatory exercise for England's crucial Euro 2000 qualifying matches in June against
Sweden and Bulgaria.
Yet the English football authorities, media and fans who
friendly matches as "meaningless" or "Mickey Mouse"
encounters constituting a waste of time and effort still reserve and exercise the privilege of complaining loudly when players who
have rarely, if ever, played together in match conditions fail to play
cohesively and fluidly in England's international matches. England's many poor
performances last season--marked by continual lapses in the fundamentals of
teamwork and a consistent failure to play as a team--have not dissuaded
them from this view.
complaints about "meaningless" friendlies are yet another episode in the perpetual club versus country
conflict. The complaints are actually grounded on the premise that any
international play outside the World Cup or the European Championship
disrupts domestic football competitions to a degree the complainants are unwilling
to accept. Labelling international friendlies "meaningless"
peremptorily dismisses the consequences of that position for England's national
team and represents an effort to render that position palatable, one the clubs
and their supporters, as well as the media, can
live with comfortably.
they thereby delude themselves, for the club versus country conflict is not in any way resolved by the
and artificial expedient of labelling friendlies
As the complaining clubs
have become more and more powerful, their complaints have carried more
force, and this time they appear to have had a lasting impact damaging the
national team's prospects. The Football Association and Keegan appear reluctant to offend
these powerful clubs and thus no longer schedule friendly matches for England whenever there is an open
international date not filled by a competitive encounter. Such was the
case last night; as most of the rest of Europe prepared for Euro 2000 qualifying
next month, England remained idle.
is, of course, merely a question of priorities. If England's football
establishment, media and fans wish to give priority to domestic competition to
the extent that England are to be sent into critical competitive matches without
playing friendly preparatory matches, so be it. But they must then
accept the consequences, and those we saw on the pitch at Wembley and
in Sofia last June.
so England face Poland in Warsaw--in a match they must win to stay in control
their Euro 2000 destiny and must draw to have any chance of qualifying via the
playoff route for second place teams--with only the Luxembourg match under their
belt following the summer break. Perhaps it will be enough. At
Wembley last March against a poorly organized Poland team with a sieve-like
defence, England put on their only cohesive and flowing performance of the
season in a competitive match on their way to a 3-1 victory built partly on a goal that never should
have been allowed because Paul Scholes steered it into the net with his upper
arm. But on that occasion, England had had the benefit of playing--and
losing to--world champions France in a friendly the month before. And
this time the venue is Warsaw, where Poland is certain to provide much stiffer