Aidan Smith: Nations League means jaded players
IT WAS the morning after the league title was clinched but Celtic had another game to promote, so a multi-tattooed man – Anthony Stokes – flopped on to a leather sofa and held up a board. “Celebrate with the champions,” it said, looking forward to yesterday’s game against Ross County. “Kids go free,” went the pay-off, somewhat plaintively.
The photo made a few of the papers so the PR department would have been happy, but more rigorous scrutiny of Celtic’s season was accompanied by shots of empty seats from earlier games in the stroll to the flag. Next term – doubtless lacking a proper, serious, long-trousered challenge from Aberdeen, despite their best efforts – will be more of the same.
And so our quest goes on…
This is the quest for meaningful football matches. We don’t lack exposure to games anymore. Not on the box now the beaks no longer rule that a Scotland international cannot be shown live because Glenbuck Cherrypickers have a practice match the same day and the crowd could be hit (by the dog not attending, leaving just the three men). And not in the raw in a top flight in which teams play each other four times (add the cups and it can be six). But we don’t see enough football that matters, that is properly thrilling. Even when such a game comes along, there is a very good chance we won’t appreciate it because the sport is wall-to-wall now and our critical faculties have been dulled by the Europa League, brutalised by the Bundesliga (that one’s not all good, you know) and bored witless by whatever match is on BT Sport 15 on any given day.
And guess what? Football – the giant burbling mass – has just got bigger.
The Nations League promises to take the most meaningless of games – international friendlies – and turn them into gold. You know those dreaded Tuesdays and Wednesdays all too well. In Scotland’s case, it’s us as cannon-fodder for a bunch of swanky tournament qualifiers (we’ve missed out again) who have left their star name at home and just about the only real positive to come out of the one-paced, over-polite affairs is that the fourth official gets to MoT his electronic board via the customary blizzard of substitutions. In the place of this tedium would be a new competition for the 54 European teams with promotion, relegation and even a shall-go-to-the-ball qualifying place for the Euro Championships.
I should be pleased. Scotland can no longer access the front door of major tournaments. Our ability to squeeze through the back door of the Euros – with that competition bloating up to 24 finalists – is far from a sure thing. So here we have a third way with a fortunate few from the Nations League getting the chance to burrow under the fence and pop their heads up at the big party – “Surprise! Bet you never expected us!” (I suppose these teams could go over the fence as well but I’d worry about that as a viable route for Scots. Remember what happened to Angus Lennie in The Great Escape).
No, the Euros opporchancity sounds like a good thing but I’m trying to avoid self-interest here. If the aim is great and glistening football, and it has to be, then another international tournament is just going to clog everything up even more.
Maybe a case could be made for the Nations League strengthening international football and redressing the balance after club football holding sway for so long. But surely it’s just going to lead to more club v country aggro over the release of players and I think we all know which faction will prevail.
The existing international tournaments hardly need the distraction. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a country capable of hosting the World Cup where construction teams won’t be worked to death and the grounds will actually have a function afterwards. Regarding the quality of the football, teams arrive for the finals absolutely knackered. Footballers are being flogged like football ground building crews.
The Brazilian midfielder Oscar racked up 65 games in his debut season for Chelsea and was then expected to perform for his country in last summer’s Confederations Cup. Although still baby-faced, he probably felt like Gerson, a Brazilian midfielder from another era, after too many of the fat cigars the latter favoured, some at half-time. Gerson was a wonderful player and, lucky old him, was part of a Brazil team only required to play six games to win the World Cup.
The World Cup shouldn’t be an endurance, a triumph for the least-tired. As for the Euros, a clown wielding a bicycle pump has set about the perfect 16-finalist format. More games, from the expansion to 24, won’t mean better games. It didn’t when the World Cup was enlarged, nor the Champions League. And for some of the bigger nations, qualifying will be drudgeful. For 2016, England’s opponents will be – cue drum-roll – Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. Good luck to the FA for selling out Wembley for the Group of Dearth.
An extra international tournament will only mean even more jaded players, struggling to produce the magic football we crave. They are not machines. They need down-time to recharge and light a cigar or whatever. Then they’ll be capable of tremendous goals like Gerson’s in the Maracana.
I bet players don’t want an extra competition and I know I don’t, every odd year, in between World Cups and Euros. Yes, I’d like to see Scotland get to finals again but even now, with John Collins’ penalty against Brazil a fading memory, I’m prepared to wait a bit longer for that.
Meanwhile, domestically we applaud Celtic’s title but are already starting to look elsewhere for football with deeper meaning. In the postscripts from Firhill, one intrigued. It talked of the Championship as the place to be next season. Rangers are already there, Hearts will almost certainly join them – and what a league it could be if Hibs were to give up the futility of always chasing seventh place and drop down, too.
Well, it’s a thought …