I found myself extremely bored this past weekend, and it’s not just because I stayed in Boston over spring break.
It’s because there simply was nothing to watch. I get the need to play international qualifiers during the season rather than stacking them all in one go at the end of the season so as to avoid players getting burnt out or simply withdrawing from the national team. While there’s no way to completely get rid of mid-season international games, playing friendlies like the ones this week simply makes no sense. Not when there’s so much on the line for so many clubs, too.
Let’s face it, I don’t care about watching Belgium beat Saudi Arabia 4–0 or Switzerland trash Panama 6–0. With these friendlies in particular, there’s almost nothing on the line for anyone. One might want to make the case that it gives new managers and teams that did not qualify for tournaments an easy way to transition into a new era. But who cares? Those ‘new eras’ can all begin when the club season is over.
And these meaningless friendlies do no team any good. Playing the games simply increases the risk of injuries to star players. Ultimately, it’s the clubs that pay these players’ wages, and it is in club tournaments (except maybe the World Cup) where most of the glory lies. Even if star players are in these friendlies, there’s a good chance their mentality is about getting back to their club teams in one piece, effectively making the friendlies useless. It does nobody any good if stars pick up injuries that may ruin their chances of appearing in a tournament. Removing this week of friendlies in March would allow national federations to shift up the league schedule by one week, giving national teams a longer period of time when the season ends to work out team selection and tactical training.
This problem might get worse with the introduction of the UEFA Nations League. While clubs still have to deal with September, October and November international breaks, the new tournament places pressure on teams to fill up the remaining four slots in March, as well. It’s safe to say that so far, UEFA’s track record of extending tournaments for the sake of allowing more teams to appear isn’t exactly great. It was nice to see Iceland’s fairy-tale journey in UEFA Euro 2016, the first tournament to operate under the expanded format of 24 teams. However, there were more boring games than classics. The eventual winners, Portugal, did not win a single group game, and only won one game in regulation time en route to the trophy. Talk about completely defeating the purpose of a tournament and a sport meant to excite.
So for the sake of the sport, for the sake of the clubs and for the sake of fans, stop with these silly friendlies.