Few in the soccer world like international breaks during the club season, and for good reason. The breaks interrupt club play, and the games are rarely good considering players have barely trained with their international teammates. There’s generally a big talent disparity within an international team, and international breaks put the health of the best players in jeopardy for the club season in service of often-meaningless friendlies.
At best, international breaks are more evil than necessary. The structure of the international break is under constant criticism, and some of have suggested FIFA should cut one of them:
“Instead of three international breaks in the European autumn, have two. Just make them a little bit longer and play three matches instead of two. The downside is that some teams would get players back on a Saturday, but that’s fine. You would go two consecutive weekends without league football twice a season, but you’d be getting rid of one break (and getting one weekend back), so you’d only have to extend the season by one week (or add a midweek round).”
There have been even more radical suggestions, like grouping all the breaks together at the end or beginning of the European season, thus making the breaks a mini season in themselves.
Regardless of how international breaks are shifted, the additional games take a toll on the players. The unfortunate truth is there are too many games in a season, for both club and country. At the beginning of the season, the players risk injury by playing in semi-serious international competitions right after inadequate vacations. At the end of the season, the injury risk is even worse, as players go from their clubs into summer tournaments that the governing bodies have concocted in the chase for endless profits.
Beyond the physical issues of international breaks, there’s the question of sensibility. As Gabriele Marcotti wrote:
“Every year it hits you like the ultimate buzzkill: The new club season begins, you’re all excited, the air of possibility hangs in the air, you play the first few games ... and then it all shuts down.”
Any hatred of international breaks is perfectly understandable for all the aforementioned reasons, and more.
And yet, I actually feel a fondness for them.
Now, I don’t come to defend or praise international breaks, but I do enjoy them as they are. Or rather, when not looked at from a very club-centric perspective, I like many things about them. The first reason is the season is long.
The season is so long. It’s so damn long.
There are 36 to 38 league games, and amongst them are numerous cup competitions. A handful of top leagues fill up weekends, and sometimes weekdays, with games. There’s the Champions League. Even during international breaks, smaller leagues play. There is, and will always be, enough soccer throughout the year.
I appreciate the opportunity breaks grant to take a breath from the flurry of games and clichéd storylines and frustrations that comes with the club season. Already, there is speculation of managers being fired, and grand declarations of how a handful of games have determined a team’s season. Players have been written off, and others have been lifted up in greatness. This repetitive and sensational cycle can get to be too much. I need some time away from Granit Xhaka before I break something, or he breaks my mind.
I like that the breaks are boring and light. There’s no big obligation to watch the friendlies as a soccer fan, unlike the obligation to keep up with every game during the club season. You can go outside and enjoy the last days of summer and the beginning of fall without feeling like you’re missing something.
Those early-season friendlies are often a wonderful relief from the weight of club matches, in which a team’s season changes with every result. International friendlies are little more than themselves. The stakes are hope for what an international team is trying to build, and wounded pride when one’s country loses, but those emotions are much less visceral than the weekly emotional turmoil of club soccer.
International breaks can also be a reward. As much as some fans hate non-tournament international soccer, representing one’s country means a lot to players. It’s a childhood dream to play for the national team, in any capacity. There are few better moments during the season than when international teams meet up for the first time. I love the happiness of players seeing their friends again, or seeing the stunned awe of players who are called up for the first time.
‘Ten minutes before I was asleep. I thought I was still in a dream.’— Metro Sport (@Metro_Sport) September 2, 2019
Matteo Guendouzi on the moment he received his first ever France call-up pic.twitter.com/unGl7betdC
International breaks are far from perfect, and there are structural problems that need to be addressed for the sake of players. But they’re also not as bad as they’re often made to seem.
I like to think of the club season as a series of sprints, with the longest and hardest stretch coming after the new year. In that way, the breaks aren’t entirely intrusive, but a chance for players, fans, and teams to step away and ready themselves for the next leg of the competition. You can even not watch soccer during that time, and in its absence, let your heart grow fonder for it.