South American international football produces more thrills and spills than anywhere else in the worldJBPress (Licensed under creative commons attribution)/Flickr

It’s the 6th of October, 2001. In Gelsenkirchen, Germany are playing out a frustrating 0-0 draw against lowly Finland. Meanwhile, in Manchester, England, with their fate in their own hands, are 2-1 down to Greece. It looks like England will lose out on the group’s single automatic World Cup qualification spot to Germany, who are a point ahead. It’s always Germany. In the 93rd minute, England get a freekick. It’s 30 yards out but is their last chance to grab the crucial point they need to qualify. David Beckham steps up, commentator Gary Bloom says his famous line “Beckham could raise the roof here with a goal”, and the rest, as they say, is history. Beckham scores a screamer, the keeper stands and watches, the country goes into delirium, and England go to the 2002 World Cup. As Bloom says in the seconds after the goal, “give that man a knighthood”.

Most vocal football fans claim to hate the international break. They tell you moments like Beckham’s only come around once in a blue moon, that games are boring, not competitive enough, and there’s not enough at stake to warrant watching. They are not completely wrong either. Sometimes games are drab, and often the Premier League serves up higher-quality, more watchable games. Most of these fans, however, give the international break little chance. It is a time like no other, when some of football’s craziest, most thrilling, dramatic, and romantic narratives are produced. The international break should be looked forward to, not complained about.

“A great majority of England’s most devoted fans, however, support clubs far lower down the football pyramid. For them, the break is a rare chance to travel away in Europe and support world-class players”

In case you’re wondering, no, we don’t have to go back twenty years for the last time the international break served up some fine drama. In the most recent break, Liverpool keeper Alisson was given two red cards on the same night (27/01), both later rescinded, in a crazy game with a goal and a sending off for each team, as Ecuador managed to hold Brazil to a famous 1-1 draw - another in a series of shock results that will likely send them to Qatar later this year. Meanwhile, on the same night halfway around the world, Iran hosted Iraq in a fiery derby which the home side narrowly won 1-0, sending them to Qatar at the expense of their gulf rivals.

Often, those who complain about the international break only follow European football, which has little on the rest of the world in the drama rankings. South America generally takes the biscuit. You probably remember the chaos that unfolded last September, seconds into Brazil’s game against Argentina. Four Argentinian players had lied about visiting the UK before entering Brazil, leading to the game’s swift abandonment and making international news. You probably weren’t following, however, when the president of the Bolivian FA was arrested in the stands for corruption halfway through their game vs. Ecuador in 2020.

On the pitch, the drama is even more bonkers. CONMEBOL’s final place at the last World Cup, a process decided over three years and around ninety games, was handed to Peru in the last round of fixtures, as Colombian keeper David Ospina palmed an indirect free-kick into his own net and gifted Peru the point they needed to qualify.

“It is a time like no other, when some of football’s craziest, most thrilling, dramatic, and romantic narratives are produced”

That said, the European international break has served up some classic encounters recently. Just the previous one gave us Alexander Mitrovic’s last-minute winner for Serbia over Portugal, sending his side to Qatar and condemning Portugal to the dreaded playoffs. A day later, Northern Ireland put in a superhuman defensive performance to keep Italy at bay in a 0-0 draw and relegate the Euro 2020 champions to the playoffs to Swiss delight. On that same night, although it counted for little, Scotland smashed Denmark, registering perhaps their best result for years, one for every non-English football romantic, proving Scotland now is a different beast to the Scotland of 2019.

International break snobbery usually comes from a fairly privileged position. Many of those who decry the break support Premier League teams or their European equivalents, and are understandably frustrated by the drop in football quality the break can sometimes herald. A great majority of England’s most devoted fans, however, support clubs far lower down the football pyramid. For them, the break is a rare chance to travel away in Europe and support world-class players that they simply don’t get during the rest of the season. For instance, at Yeovil Town a few weeks ago, I heard fans behind me whimsically reminisce about the time they saw the Steven Gerrard play with Wayne Rooney and score a worldie for England at Wembley, a far cry from Adi Yussuf at the 9000-odd capacity Huish Park. For Welsh, Scottish, and Irish fans, north and south of the border, this is often even more true. For them, their national teams are often a healthy step up from domestic football, and the fans turn up passionately as a result. Try telling Wales fans, delirious after Keiffer Moore’s equaliser against Belgium, or Scotland fans after beating Israel to reach an international competition for the first time since 1998, that the international break is boring.


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Granted, both the international break and European tournament qualification could, and indeed should, be improved. For instance, one of the few things the proposers of the biennial World Cup did argue well was the air miles and carbon emissions created by players flying to and from far flung destinations every three or four months is a downright disgrace, but this is another debate in itself. Small tweaks to the system, however, can preserve the drama and romanticism yet get rid of the undesirable negatives. These games offer valuable preparation for teams before big tournaments and can unearth footballing gems too. To appreciate the international break is to understand part of what makes football special - it is a stage which has no equivalent and produces narratives that don’t either.

If you’ve read this far, there’s a chance you somewhat agree. If not, give the international break a final chance and follow the next one closely. The European playoffs for the final spots in Qatar are fast approaching. Either Portugal or Italy must miss out, Wales could face Scotland in a winner-takes-all game, and a shock or two will inevitably happen along the way. All in a week’s work for football’s most underappreciated facet, the international break.