Farcical friendlies

Brazilian team and its support staff celebrate their Confederations Cup triumph at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The 2014 World Cup host has played very little competitive football over the past couple of years.-AP

As the major international tournaments inexorably expand, friendly internationals can increasingly seem like an intrusive luxury, wholly overshadowed by all those tournaments which carry real significance. And which, over the years, expanded exponentially. And now threaten to be enlarged even more, writes Brian Glanville.

Bucking the trend you might say. The recent sudden spate of friendly internationals seems to go against the long established tendency to regard friendlies as an anachronism, a burden on the fixture list, an irritation to club managers reluctant to see their star players involved in matches which sap their stamina and expose them to injury.

And as the major international tournaments inexorably expand, friendly internationals can increasingly seem like an intrusive luxury, wholly overshadowed by all those tournaments which carry real significance. And which, over the years, expanded exponentially. And now threaten to be enlarged even more.

The World Cup, surely the senior competition of all, was once a manageable size of 16 nations. Indeed, back in 1950, when it was restarted after the Second World War, it was contested by a mere 13 countries. In retrospect it seems incredible that the likes of Argentina, Austria and Scotland, all qualified for the tournament, should all have refused to take part.

The Scots, in their supreme perversity, announced that only if they won the British International Championship, from which FIFA had most generously allowed the top two teams to qualify, would they deign to go to Brazil. The Argentines reportedly stayed out to spite their traditional South American rivals, the hosts, Brazil. And the Austrians, who had looked formidable shortly before the tournament, thrashing Italy, declared that their team was too young, which led to the fiasco of Uruguay, the eventual winners, having just one group qualifying game to play, won 8-0 against the then feeble Bolivians.

It was Joao Havelange, now disgraced for taking bribes while in office as president of FIFA from a wealthy but now defunct company, who bloated the World Cup finals from 16 to an unmanageable 24. It is his deeply controversial successor Sepp Blatter who enlarged it still further to 32. And now here comes Michel Platini, as disastrous a president of the European body, UEFA, as he was brilliant as a footballer, who wants to increase the complement of teams to 40.

One misguided journalistic supporter of the idea applauded it on the grounds that African and Asian teams deserved greater representation. They arguably do, but bloating the finals is not the way to do it. Rather, as I have argued since long ago, in the age of the plane, there is no longer any need to keep the qualifying groups so strictly regional. Why should not African and European teams compete directly in the qualifying stages with each other? Meanwhile, when will the ridiculous anomaly end of tiny San Marino competing, if that be the word in qualifying groups as a mere mattress team, as the Italians have it?

But years ago, I remember that greatest of competitors Vittorio Pozzo, leader and inspiration of the Italian teams which won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938, lamenting to me, years later that it now seemed that every international game had to be contained within a competition.

Yet by a colossal irony, FIFA rules have it, perhaps inevitably, that whatever country is due to stage the World Cup finals can, for the four years, play nothing but friendlies. Which of course, is the fate, the predicament if you like, of the present Brazil team. This is widely perceived as a disadvantage, even if it can hardly surpass the advantage of playing the eventual finals at home. The reason being that friendlies are not the real thing, that there is no real competitive edge to them so that the eventual hosts lack true match practice. As it is, we see the Brazilians playing friendly matches all over Europe, as well as at home, not least in London. A notable exception which proved the rule, however, was when at the end of the last European season, they staged the Confederations Cup which they won in some style, not least with a significant 3-0 victory over the World Cup holders, Spain.

And they may indeed feel grateful for not being obliged to take part in the onerous and tediously long drawn out South American qualifying World Cup tournament. For many years it was divided into small groups but this is the time of what you might call gigantism, with every South American team involved in the same over-populated and drearily long-drawn out qualifying tournament, with the top four teams going through and the fifth, in this latest instance Uruguay, playing off against less stringent opposition from a foreign group.

England and the other British teams competed till 1950 only in their own international Championship, itself now defunct, another casualty of the proliferation of tournaments. Yet, looking back, how many memorable friendly international were played, not least by England. Perhaps the most exhilarating of all, celebrating its 60th Anniversary this November, was the match in which Hungary finally shattered England’s unbeaten record at home to foreign teams. Led by Ferenc Puskas, with his phenomenal left foot, with deep-lying centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti scoring a hat-trick, the Hungarians won by a magisterial 6-3; the end of an English era, and an astonishing exhibition of Hungarian skills and finishing. The long held belief that foreign teams could not beat England because their shooting and general finishing wasn’t the equal of their approach play discredited forever.

Even less friendly for England was the return game in Budapest the following May when they were thrashed, conceding seven goals. Now you could argue in defence of friendlies that at least they give international managers the chance to experiment with newer, younger players. Results being of secondary significance, where once they could count indeed.