How to ‘end’ the international break

As Lionel Messi and Argentina embark on another international break, it’s high time to end the current setup.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a conversation I had with Carlo Ancelotti during which (unsurprisingly, given he’s a football manager) he complained about the time coaches actually get with players and, specifically, the scheduling of international breaks.

Indeed, having the squad go off for 10 days in September, October and November, just as the season is getting underway, is both a buzzkill and a hurdle. It’s a perpetual club vs. country tug-of-war, and FIFA inevitably gets caught in the middle.

These things need to be planned out way in advance — yup, the dates for 2024 have already been decided — but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way. For example, what if the game had a separate and distinct “international season,” during which all internationals would be played and club football continued as normal through the rest of the campaign?

I’ll get to the logistics in a minute, but the benefits of not breaking up the club season and giving international football its own space seem obvious to me.

As Ancelotti pointed out, clubs would get more continuous training time with players, which is especially important at the start of a campaign when there are changes to the squad or to the coaching staff. You might say that’s what preseason is for, but the reality is that with international tournaments in the summer and players returning late, plus the transfer window remaining open until Aug. 31, it’s wishful thinking in the modern game.

You wouldn’t have players jetting halfway around the world and back every month between September and November, which means less fatigue, less wear and tear and less in the way of injuries. You’d also have the same fitness and medical teams monitoring them for extended periods, which would also help in that regard.

There would be a financial benefit, too, of course. Broadcasters and sponsors would get some continuity: you don’t need to suddenly fill your weekends with nonsense because there are no league games on. Routine builds loyalty — the folks who make soap operas figured it out a long time ago. But the international game would benefit, too — probably more so in fact.

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If national teams become the only show in town for six weeks, they’d hog the limelight. We’re in an international break right now — can you feel the excitement? Probably not; there are title races going on throughout Europe, teams fighting to avoid relegation and the Champions League quarterfinals coming up, but instead, all of it grinds to a halt so we can get 10 days of friendlies or qualifiers that are often marginally more significant than friendlies.

A separate international season, however, would focus media and sponsor attention uniquely on the national side, not least because there would be nothing else going on. It’d be a bit like what we get during the World Cup, in fact. Fans would put their club worries aside and rally behind their country with gusto, not as an afterthought as happens now. And that, of course, translates into more revenue, which FAs tend to love.

National team coaches would love it too. No more players pulling out with “phantom injuries.” No more clubs moaning about their guys going away. You’d actually get proper time to evaluate players, build chemistry and work on tactics. Come tournament time, it wouldn’t look like 11 random (albeit gifted … usually) guys cobbled together. It would actually look like a team, with a modicum of continuity and consistency.

Gianni Infantino and FIFA have taken control of the calendar. Could they make a radical overhaul work?

Are there logistical hurdles? Sure, and what you are about to read is merely a proposal that might “work.”

I’ll use UEFA as an example first. In non-World Cup years, there are five international breaks set aside for international football, during which teams play a maximum of two games each. In 2017, they’re in March, June, September, October and November. Ideally, you would end the season early and play all 10 games from early May to late June and then have only club football the rest of the year. That’s not really workable, though, because there could be playoffs involved, and you need to go through the 10-game group stage first.

And so you end up having two international seasons. One in May and June, during which you have a training camp and play up to 12 games. These would be tournament matches in an even-numbered World Cup or European championship year, or qualifiers and friendlies in an odd-numbered year. And then you’d have a shorter break, similar to the current one in October, where you either play official games or friendlies.

Here’s how it might look for the 2018 to 2022 two-year cycle, at least for the bigger European leagues.

August 2018: domestic leagues begin
October 2018: international break, two national team games
Last week in April 2019: domestic leagues end
First week in May 2019: Champions League final
May-June 2019: international season, 10-12 national team games
October 2019: international break, two national team games
First week in May 2020: Champions League final
June 2020: Euro 2020

The number of planned internationals wouldn’t change; they’d simply be bunched closer together. But would it work for other confederations?

South America wouldn’t be a problem. Their World Cup qualification is 18 games, but there is no Copa America qualifying so that’s not an issue. Africa and Asia play their continental championships in January (much to the annoyance of European clubs), so they wouldn’t be affected: they’d still get to call up their guys as happens now. With a schedule like this, CONCACAF qualifying and even the Gold Cup could be accommodated as well.

Would it be problematic for those leagues that play straight through May, June and July and follow a “calendar year” schedule, like Brazil or Major League Soccer? Sure, but it’s already problematic now. The Brasileirao carried on straight through the 2015 Copa America (though it did stop for the World Cup) as well as the Copa Centenario last summer. The same goes for MLS and the 2015 Gold Cup and the Copa Centenario. So if they don’t seem to care, why should anybody else?

There have been similar proposals in the past, but those were before FIFA took the lead in standardising the international match calendar. Back then, it was simply unworkable. Today it’s a different story.

Reform like this would benefit both the club game and international game, both in economic and sporting terms, and it would do so without messing with tradition. Unless your idea of tradition is monthly breaks in league football every autumn.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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