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Nov 13, 2012

November no friend of international football

Stockholm's Friends Stadium awaits its inauguration on Wednesday. It will be a historic night for Swedish football. The Swedish FA have decided to invite England, one of the two oldest international teams of all time, to help them with the grand opening.

When choosing that opposition, they would have envisaged names like Rooney, Lampard, Cole and Gerrard gracing Solna. Instead, they will be welcoming only the last, on admittedly a gala night for England’s captain, his hundredth cap. The other three will be absent. Even in times when England’s supposed golden generation is tarnished, the other three are still stalwarts, but instead the former Rasunda Stadium must welcome Wilfried Zaha, Leon Osman and Carl Jenkinson.

Those three are unlikely to have been on the brochure when the Football Association flogged its England away friendly wares for a considerable fee. After all, the aforementioned trio will be making their debuts, but the Swedes might have expected more star quality on their big night out. However, they could hardly register shock at the absences.

Over in England, the international friendly possesses a stock of Hadean depth. Such is the inward-looking Premier League. They are a constant bugbear of club managers, with Sam Allardyce and Arsene Wenger -- unlikely bedfellows the rest of the time -- leading the whinges. Sir Alex Ferguson has his own policy: the withdrawal of players. Expect to see Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney involved this weekend after their respective scratches and strains.

Wenger might even agree with his old foe’s pulling of Van Persie from the firing line. Three years ago Wednesday, Van Persie collided with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and wrecked his ankle. He was lost to Arsenal for the rest of the season. To lose him during a competitive match was bad enough, but during a non-competitive match was a disaster, and, in Wenger’s angry mind, totally avoidable; thereafter his craggy brow would furrow deeper than ever at the mere mention of it.

The worth of the international friendly has descended inversely to the club game’s inexorable rise. Osman’s call-up by England was a throwback to the past: an experienced player given the nod after years of quality service and roundly celebrated by his club, too; David Moyes gathered Everton’s players around before announcing the good news to a 31-year-old for whom this may be a one-off, but one he can cherish forever. Elsewhere, self-interest rules OK.

Fans of Barcelona will not care how Lionel Messi plays in Saudi Arabia, they just pray he comes home with a clean bill of health and relatively fresh legs. That pattern will be repeated throughout the football world. Santi Cazorla is unlikely to be asked his thoughts on a first visit to Panama, just how jet-lagged he is ahead of the North London derby. A night when Italy play France and the Netherlands face Germany -- two of the greatest rivalries in the game -- has been reduced to a live ticker of possible injury scares. Wednesday will not be an evening of disinterest for fans, more a morbid fascination in the worst happening.

“Players are now like pieces of merchandise, like if I lent you a brand-new Aston Martin for a couple of weeks and you brought it back with a couple of scratches on it,” former England forward Tony Woodcock told me four years ago, ahead of England travelling to Berlin to face Germany. Woodcock however, didn’t see that as the right train of thought. “We should be taking this word 'friendly' out of the whole scenario. The stadium's going to be full and those travelling England supporters will be there. Consider all the pounds and euros that cost and then you call it a friendly; you can't have it all ways. I would get the word 'friendly' out of it and just call it an 'international match'.”

Woodcock has not got his wish. In the time since, the interest has dimmed yet further, and we still call them friendlies, though they are becoming an endangered species. FIFA’s trimming of the calendar removed the inconvenient August fixtures that either robbed players in the middle of the first week of the season, or in the days before the big kick-off, but the November round is here to stay. Every odd year -- 2013, 2015 etc. -- November provides the play-offs for major championships. In even years, it provides an opportunity for national associations to make money from friendly matches. Member nations do not vote to have their revenues cut -- another strand of self-interest.

The international game has its place, of course, but not at a time of the season when domestic and continental competitions are beginning to take shape. It is at European championships and World Cups, tournaments from where much of football nostalgia takes much of its source material.

Long may that continue, but the playing of a round of games that can be too easily explained away as meaningless and dangerous friendlies only serves to give international football a bad name.