Peter Young
19 August 1999
England Football Online
Contact Us Page Last Updated 27 September 1999
These opinion pieces express only the views of the author of the particular piece.


Comment: Club vs. Country:  England's Failure to Prepare

  Despite their occasional use of the editorial "we," they do not necessarily represent the views of the other authors of this website.
Why the much-maligned friendly needs friends

See also:

Comment--England:  Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Learn?

While 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.  

When 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.

England 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.  

Nonetheless, 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.

Complaints 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.

During 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, the 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 answer.  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.

In the 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 regard 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.  

These 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.  But they thereby delude themselves, for the club versus country conflict is not in any way resolved by the superficial and artificial expedient of labelling friendlies "meaningless."  

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.

It 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.

And 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 opposition.