International football needs a shake-up, one good night doesn't change that
The morning after an extraordinary night before in the Americas is not the ideal time to call for a shake-up of international football. The dramatic conjunction of the United States' demise at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago, Argentina's Lionel Messi-led resuscitation and the snuffing out of Chile's golden generation was like simultaneously watching three boxset season finales at once.
Yet, to use this one night of World Cup qualifying action to vindicate the state of international football is like using Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Brighton to vindicate the Gunners' Premier League title credentials -- it only works if you ignore all that has gone before.
The truth is that international football sits uneasily in the domestic calendar. The big European clubs loathe it, and you can see why.
Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool will have to face Manchester United without Sadio Mane, injured this week for Senegal; Jose Mourinho is reported to be upset that Romelu Lukaku, recovering from an ankle injury, was risked for 30 minutes by Belgium; Arsenal, with four consecutive clean sheets to their name, will be hard pushed to keep that run going after Shkodran Mustafi was injured for Germany.
For the club managers, never more than two bad results from a "crisis" these days, international weeks are a tense game of Russian roulette.
But the status quo doesn't serve the international managers either. In an ideal world, Belgium boss Roberto Martinez shouldn't have to take Mourinho's wishes into consideration. He has enough on his plate dealing with the pressure of helping one of Europe's strongest squads to fulfil their potential. But when the qualifying games are dropped in among the domestic calendar like this, international management is one big multilateral compromise.
And what happens when the compromising is complete? Managers find themselves with a mixed bag of players in varying states of fitness, some of whom come bearing instructions-for-use from their managers. From one fixture to the next, teams are dramatically altered, tactics are forcibly changed, full integration becomes impossible.
England boss Gareth Southgate was roundly pilloried for the drab performances of his team in 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Lithuania, but what chance does he have if he's only got a few days to impart his instructions, and his players only have a few days to learn them? You can't expect flowing, Pep Guardiola-style football in that timeframe.
This week, UEFA announced the pots for the new UEFA Nations League, designed to try to revive interest and excitement in the international game. But surely a far better solution would be to pick up all the international football, squeeze it together and plonk it down in the summer.
The removal of those international weeks would enable the domestic European leagues to wrap up their affairs by the end of April. Elsewhere in the world, midseason breaks would be required, but that would still be favourable to the stop-start motion of the current system. (A stop-start motion that will continue with UEFA's overwrought new scheme.)
International teams would finally have time to settle; managers could have a period measured in weeks, not days, to work with their squads. The understanding and cohesion would bring huge improvement to the standard of football. And the rewards for such a change would not be seen on the pitch alone.
If the European groups were reduced, possibly by means of a pre-qualifying section that rewarded the more progressive, ambitions of the minnows, then they could become like mini-tournaments in themselves. The Nations League is a start -- with reduced group sizes of teams of similar strength -- but it won't act as main qualifying for Euro 2020 and is still stretched across the domestic calendar at the start of next season.
Matches could be staged in individual nations. Belgium, England, Denmark and Cyprus playing each other across two weeks in Germany. Meanwhile, Germany would be based in France, fighting it out with Croatia, Turkey and Albania. In England, you could have a fortnight of games against Spain, Wales, Netherlands and Israel.
Instead of a two-year dirge of low pressure group games, usually between frustrated superpowers and compact, defensive underdogs, you'd have a quickfire, high stakes tournament-style group where every game means something. Where every game was contested by settled squads. Where the fans could relax and watch their nation without worrying that their club's striker was going to get a minor injury and miss next week's cup game.
What the international associations lost in revenue from the removal of semi-regular fixtures, they'd gain in a significant rise in TV revenues, not to mention the financial rewards of hosting someone else's qualifiers. And if we're going to be bold enough to imagine a world in which self-interest stands down in the face of collective gain, let's ensure that all the nations benefit from a fair share of the TV revenues too.
At present, we have an uncomfortable balance between club and country that results in poor matches, tired players and angry managers. We have a system where both classes of football are compromised and reduced by the other.
For all the excitement of Tuesday night, this isn't working. Is it too much to hope that FIFA could work with the regional confederations to find a solution that suited all parties?
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.