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Opinion: In Defense of International Friendlies

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Last week Scotland took part in the Carling Nations Cup in Dublin. In the build up to, during and after the tournament many players, managers, journalists and fans called into question various aspects of the tournament. Amongst other things, organisation, ticket pricing and the scheduling of matches was criticised. However, there were some who went further and questioned the point in playing the tournament in the first place.

As a Scotland fan and a fan of international football in general, it’s saddened and frustrated me to see the gradual increase in the commentary that now regularly accompanies all international friendlies. The commentary that states that friendlies are pointless and shouldn’t be played. I had another one of those moments reading Barry Glendenning’s commentary of the Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland on the Guardian. Despite being paid to watch his home country play football (not the worse job in the world), Glendenning couldn’t stop indulging in slagging off the competition. A quick glance at the comments section below just confirmed what I already suspected, it’s now fashionable to slate international friendlies.

In a modern football world were money and winning is everything, club football is taking precedence. The fear that a player might pick up an injury has led managers see international football as a nuisance at best and a threat at worst. That managers think that way is normal but the mentality has now spread to fans who now feel more loyalty to their club than their country. When you come from a rather unsuccessful country like Scotland, this feeling only grows. Why invest your time and emotions in a team that will probably never win anything when you could support a club side who can give you a trophy every season.

The inevitable result of all this is increased pressure on players and football associations not to play friendlies. However, when you look at the fundamental purpose of friendlies you realise the major problem. The purpose of a friendly is simple, to practise. We have an expression in English that I think most people agree with, practise makes perfect. Now whether Scotland can ever become perfect or not is another matter but I’m sure most people would accept the more a team play together the better they are for it. That’s the reason club sides play friendlies, right? The idea that Scotland can go anywhere without practising is simply wrong and mustn’t be allowed to become accepted. You can criticise the timing, the location, the pricing, the opposition and scheduling of friendlies but you can’t criticise the purpose of them. Practise is key in almost everything we do in life, not just football.

Of course Scotland weren’t the only country in international action, World champions Spain fly to the US this week to take on Venezuela and the USA. Despite just winning the Champions League, Barcelona have 5 players in the squad with Xavi and Puyol omitted due to injury. In Scotland, Mark Wilson was too tired to play in Dublin while Kris Commons said he’d prefer to be on the beach. In Spain, Xavi (a player with over 100 caps) had to explain his absence in order to avoid criticism from those who saw him as less than 100% committed to the cause. Clearly Spain have a better squad than Scotland but it’s no coincidence that Spain are world champions when they take every match, including friendlies, extremely seriously. In fact, so seriously are Spain taking this summers under 21 championships, a tournament that Wilshere and Caroll of England have been allowed to sit out, that they’ve called up World Cup winners Javi Martinez and Juan Mata. Spain’s logic is simple, they want to win the tournament. Success breeds success and practise makes perfect.

Written by Jamie McGregor

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