Why Justin Bieber is more entertaining than pointless international friendlies

Roy Hodgson's Three Lions take on Sweden for the third time in a year, one of many meaningless, long-distance, money-spinning friendlies that are hampering domestic clubs
By Ewan Roberts

Attend a Justin Bieber concert, listen to a recording of Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour long filibuster, watch Nadine Dorries eat a kangaroo’s penis; all things I’d rather do than watch England play against Sweden on Wednesday night.

Despite domestic fixtures beginning to pile up and a congested Christmas period on the horizon, yet another entirely meaningless friendly, save for a few sideshows, has been shoe-horned into a busy football calendar.

From the Premier League’s upper echelons to its lower-placed minnows, a club from almost every division in the league will be forced to wave off their prized assets this week, crossing fingers and undertaking novenas in the hope that they return unscathed.

From Wigan’s Franco Di Santo, who travels to Saudi Arabia to warm an already hot and sticky bench, to Chelsea’s Brazilian trio of David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar, who traipse across the Atlantic to face Colombia; every club is affected on some level. But half the damage is already done merely upon a player’s selection for the squad.



VENUE: Panama



VENUE: New York



VENUE: Riyadh

Take Saturday’s lunch-time north London derby: Arsenal’s playmaker-supreme Santi Cazorla will have travelled to Panama and back with the Spanish national team, while Tottenham’s Brazilian enforcer Sandro will have been singing the national anthem at 00.30 on Thursday morning, just 60 hours before kick-off at the Emirates.

Even if said players don’t take to the pitch, they’re still subjected to extensive travelling, jetlag, adjusting and readjusting to different time zones, as well as being absent from club training and unavailable to prepare for the coming fixture, unable to attend team meetings, work on shape, watch opposition videos ad infinitum.

Some players have even been selected despite prolonged absences or niggling injuries. Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has played very little football after a 15-month lay-off, while the aforementioned Sandro has a calf problem, yet both have been selected for their respective nations (though their managers would have preferred them rested instead).

And all this disruption exists under the guise that national teams need as much time as possible together to prepare; but what benefit is there to England (and other nations) playing a friendly match in November when their next competitive fixture (a World Cup qualifier against San Marino) isn’t until mid-March?

The squad itself is devoid of many of Roy Hodgson’s senior players, bereft of those he most needs time wit - key cogs likely to start against San Marino in March such as Michael Carrick, Joleon Lescott, Theo Walcott, Kyle Walker and Wayne Rooney. Some haven’t been selected, some aren’t fit, and some withdrew through “injury” after selection.

The term “friendly” is becoming less apt with regard to the relationships between clubs and the countries their players represent, but also increasingly literal in terms of the football on show which has been reduced to a continental kick-about with a second string XI.

10/1 England are 10/1 with Bet365 to beat Sweden 2-1
With nothing to play for, no prizes on offer, players shirk responsibility and shy away from challenges, fearful of risking injury, while the tempo and quality are generally low. Fringe players might look at the occasion as a chance to impress, but a good showing (nay, even a great, hat-trick-scoring showing) won’t take precedence over continued good form at club level.

But at least we’re handed token talking points: the customary call-up of a previously overlooked and uncapped player, the surprise inclusion of a rising star or two, a sprinkling of Championship representation.

Leon Osman, as deserving of a call-up as he may be, follows in the wake of Dean Ashton, Joey Barton and other one-cap wonders. But the question isn’t why hasn’t he been called up sooner, but will he ever be called up again? Or is he Hodgson’s Kevin Davies: a brief subplot on an irrelevant night?

Fifa’s hierarchy are adamant such friendlies aren’t pointless, that they exists beyond shock call-ups and tactical tinkering, stressing the importance of supporters being able to watch their national teams play regularly, but that’s a reasoning that has become increasingly flaky as more and more teams have travelled to neutral venues to do battle.

How many Serbian fans will be making the 1000km trip to Switzerland to face Chile, whose own fans will need to travel closer to 12,000km to watch their idols play? Similarly, Nigeria take on Venezuela in Florida and Brazil play Colombia in New York.

These messy arrangements are partly born out of the huge number of non-Europeans playing in Europe, and partly attributable to financial reasons.

Arsene Wenger, speaking after Wilshere’s selection, didn’t hold back in his appraisal: “"There are a lot of politics behind these games. When you see some teams travelling [long distances], you think: 'Is it more to pay back some corporation than prepare a team for the next official game?'”

The Brazilian Soccer Federation, for example, has little say in when, where and against whom the five-time World Cup winners play, having sold that liberty to International Sports Events. The well-being of domestic clubs, the fitness of players, the competitiveness of matches, the accessibility and affordability of games has been superseded by profitability, promotion and commercialisation.

So international football is left with hordes of globetrotters racking up frequent flyer miles as they jet-set from one meaningless friendly to another, sold to the highest bidder, while domestic clubs sweat on the fitness of their players and enter fixtures underprepared and, often, undermanned. Is Leon Osman's long-awaited England debut really worth it?

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