Oh, hey, it’s another international break. Didn’t we just have one of those?
Why, yes, yes we did. Last month. And the month before it. This is the third international window in back-to-back-to-back months, all interrupting the club season.
There’s a certain rhythm to a club season. It warms up slowly, gathering energy with a few peaks before heating to a rolling boil when spring arrives – assuming you’re on the European calendar. But the international breaks in September, October and November keep interrupting that momentum, disrupting the narrative and re-setting it almost two weeks later.
The last weekend before this latest break, Liverpool and Manchester City played a storming game with potentially far-reaching Premier League title implications. Newly managerless Bayern Munich somehow hammered Borussia Dortmund 4-0, sending the presumptive title contenders into a new crisis of confidence. Juventus held off Milan but subbed off a furious Cristiano Ronaldo early again. And Real Madrid and Barcelona both notched dominant wins, reclaiming the top of the table – each with a game in hand, against one another.
The story of a season was forming in all of these leagues. But instead of allowing fans to binge-watch and see what will happen next – Can Liverpool hang on? Will City recover? Has Bayern suddenly figure things out? Is Dortmund doomed? Will Ronaldo become a problem? Have Real and Barca finally turned the corner? – they’re forced to wait two weeks for the resumption of the season, the next episodes, as it were.
This stop-start cadence does neither the club nor the international game any favors. Because neither feel like complete chapters when the other begins again. You can barely remember now what happened in the last international window, just as the club season will be a foggy memory by the time it resumes. And the truth is that most fans are probably more interested in the club game anyway, especially when we’re three years from the next World Cup.
But it’s a vexing problem because there’s no obvious solution. We presently have nine-day international windows in September, October and November, another in March and then the big summer window for major tournaments or a series of qualifiers. And the endless creation of new international competitions like the various Nations Leagues doesn’t make it any easier to fix.
Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated has suggested consolidating the entire international calendar into a single 6-to-8 week window over the summer, wherein all national team business needs to be conducted.
This strict separation of church and state is appealing, but it might be unworkable. There is simply too much business to be attended to for it all to be squeezed into the course of two months. You wouldn’t be able to get entire rounds of qualifying into one of those windows, or maybe even two of them, while also holding the World Cup and the various continental tournaments and the myriad Nations Leagues.
Because, realistically, the governing bodies won’t give up any of their money-making tournaments to accommodate the club season. This is the central problem: The leagues, both domestic and continental, essentially compete with the confederations and FIFA for the players’ time, never mind that the clubs pay their salaries. Neither side wants to give an inch.
Still, something has to give as the impositions on the fans’ sanity and the players’ health grow more burdensome.
So why not cut down from five or six international windows to three? Keep the March one and keep the summer one, but roll the three windows in the fall into a single 16-day window in October, with as many as four match-days in them.
That would still permit real, year-round international competition without cannibalizing the club season, as it does now. It’s clearer, tidier, and far less disruptive to the campaigns of both club and country. While the number of matchdays for each team would be reduced from six – or five, as a lot of nations opt not to play on every single date – to four, there should still be time for all the competitions to be completed, since friendlies still take place.
This would have the added benefit of giving national team managers a prolonged period to work with players and really build teams, rather than go through three quick windows consumed entirely by introductions, regeneration and perhaps a quick tactical session or two, without much real training. The quality of international play might even improve. Besides, it would cut down on travel for the many players who play for clubs thousands of miles from their home countries and reduce the dizzying coming-and-going of players for club coaches.
It would, most of all, serve the fans better, creating clearer distinctions between the club and international seasons and thereby surely improving both.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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