International friendlies losing relevance in current format

Last week, Scotland beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in a dull and uneventful contest that looked destined for a goalless draw until the final five minutes.

Even despite a lack of quality, a Scottish win should normally be something for fans to cheer about, but this time it wasn’t. Due to this being a ‘friendly’, the match was about as relevant as celebrating Christmas in July, and it begs the question as to whether there is still any point in modern international friendlies.

For decades, friendlies have been used by teams as a sort of warm-up to ease themselves into international duty, before they play the matches that actually have some sort of consequence.

It’s understandable, some might say logical, that squads may want a chance to gel and play in a competitive environment so that they might be at their peak for what challenges are yet to come. It’s also pointless.

In modern football, players are competing week in, week out. If they aren’t prepared for international duty due to a lack of playing time then they probably shouldn’t have been selected in the first place. Friendlies add just another pointless fixture to an already crowded schedule, for very little in return.

The term ‘friendlies’ too is a misleading one. These matches are rarely played on particularly good terms, as both teams still see winning as the ultimate goal, regardless of the spectacle. Rather than giving these games an air of fake importance, perhaps it is time to regard them more as exhibitions as opposed to full-on, do-or-die, contests.

Friendlies already allow six substitutions per team, as opposed to the regular three, but why stop there? Friendlies should be used as a chance to show spectators the human side of players, and let them see how fun and exciting the game can be when its stars are allowed off the leash and given the chance to play without the pressure of failure.

When France hosted Brazil, some of most talented young stars met on a football field and provided, by all accounts, an enjoyable contest. But imagine the possibilities had Brazil decided to play with just David Luiz at the back, and seven up front: it would have created an absurd, manic, but ultimately thrilling spectacle.

A clear comparison from the rugby world is that of the Barbarians; a team made up of superstars who take on an international side. These games are played with intensity and competiveness, but at the same time see props attempting drop-goals and lineouts involving all fifteen players. These games attract sell-out audiences and give the players and coaches sweet relief from the high-pressure environments of their regular schedules.

Many have accused football of losing touch with the common fan due to the ludicrous amounts of money involved in it nowadays, but friendlies could be used as a tool to reconnect with the disillusioned.

Or, at the very least, these matches could be played in smaller countries that are yet to embrace ‘the beautiful game’.

With the dearth of stars that the game currently possesses, it seems a shame for them to play in the same venues, for the same fans, on a consistent basis when some fans would sell their own arm for a chance to see their heroes play. Instead of Brazil travelling to Paris for a game, why not China, or India, or America, where football is in need of some publicity?

The place for friendlies in the modern game does not seem to be changing, but perhaps their style should be. It’s an untapped footballing resource that could be used to spread the game rather than provide meaningless contests. The phrase ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ has never rung more true.

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