Euro and Copa America remind us why international football stirs emotions
PARIS -- Every two years or so, particularly those of us who live in Europe and whose teams pretty much take qualifying for a World Cup or continental championship for granted, awake from our club-induced torpor to take notice of our national sides.
Outside of that, for most, it's all about the club game. We don't sit and agonize over who might be called up for that friendly against Lithuania in two months' time. We don't worry about whether 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 is the way forward. In fact, when we do get our international break, we often hate it because it interrupts the reassuring weekly ritual of league football.
I realize the above is a generalization. In some parts of the world, perhaps South America, given the intensity of the qualifiers, the national side does matter to many all through the year. And, yes, when qualification is in doubt, we tend to rally around and get emotionally invested. But it's not a stretch to suggest that for a majority of fans, in a majority of nations, a majority of the time, international football lies somewhere between nuisance and intrusion.
And then tournaments come around and it all gets turned on its head.
Take the tumult that's happened over the past few weeks at the Copa America and Euro. Suddenly, Dunga loses his job with Brazil because of another poor Selecao showing (although an exit propelled by a craven refereeing blunder) and it's another existential crisis for the Brazilian Football Confederation. Lionel Messi says he'll no long turn out for Argentina (and, possibly everyone from Sergio Aguero to Gonzalo Higuain to Javier Mascherano joins him) and it divides a nation. Then, of course, there's England and the umpteenth biblical gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, this time rendered more severe because the executioner is tiny Iceland.
It's a lot to take in. And even though Dunga's departure was no real shock, and even though Messi will surely return to international football in time for the 2018 World Cup, and even though England was just being England, the summer's two tournaments have generated their share of headline-making news. It's gotten our attention, though whether you consider that a good or bad thing is open for debate. (OK, fair enough, Iceland has been a real shock in an inspiring Leicester City sort of way for pretty much everyone.)
That's the nature of the national game. Friendlies and the vast majority of qualifiers are greeted like the visit of your accountant uncle/brother-in-law (delete as appropriate), the one who monopolizes conversation with talk about stuff you could not care less about and who stops you from doing what you'd normally do on a weekend. It's disruptive, it's empty and it's boring.
But then comes tournament time with the microscope set to granular. Every aspect is scrutinized: your right-back's sleep patterns become the topic of breakfast conversation and your daily mood is affected by anodyne news conference quotes and who -- you're told -- looked good in training.
Again, I appreciate that some are immune to this. I know fans of certain clubs who would be happy for their country to never win a World Cup if it means their club gets to win a league title or Champions League. Those are often the people who either go on holiday during tournament time or who support the countries their club's stars play for. That's fine, too.
But the majority find themselves sucked into this sudden need to rejoice and despair based on the performances of 23 men with whom they share nothing but a passport. And, lest we forget, most of us can, in extreme circumstances, change which club we support or at least lose interest. International football offers no such option. While club football delivers an endless menu of possibilities, for the vast majority there is no choice with your national team. Even those who have multiple nationalities or family ties to other countries are still limited to two or three options max.
That's why this stuff matters. We can't escape it, and there's an air of finality to it. When your club loses two in a row, there's usually a bunch more games to hold out hope and right the ship. When your national side does it, it generally means you've been humiliated at a major tournament and you won't get another chance for another two years.
It's not a rational relationship, and it's entirely alien to how most of us experience the sport. Maybe that's part of the appeal. It's football, but not as we know it.
It's like being in a happy, committed marriage and then you have an affair every two years -- a passionate, intense one that almost always ends badly. Then you return to quotidian life. (On the rare occasions when it does end well, you eagerly go back two years later only to be thoroughly disappointed. Unless you're Spain, of course, and win three major tournaments in a row.)
Personally, I'm glad folks only care about this stuff every two years. International football isn't the highest quality, it's sub-par from an aesthetic point of view, and it can be riven with ugly nationalism. But it's also wonderful and can stir emotions you weren't sure you had. It can make you feel part of a much bigger whole. We all need that from time to time.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.