EURO 2016 is upon us but the big leagues just refuse to go away. They continue to dominate the headlines with transfer gossip, managerial speculation or new TV deals (the Bundesliga for example), almost as if they’re jealously clinging on to all of the attention before some of it switches to the national teams for a month.
In truth, it’s not entirely their fault that they’re still hogging the limelight a full three weeks after the end of the regular season. The endless stream of elite club football ‘news’ merely exists to meet a very real, insatiable demand. It’s a numbers game - and the big, globalised sides making up the latter stages of the Champions League easily generate more clicks than even the biggest national teams.
There are more Manchester United fans around the world than there are of England, and the same is probably true if Bayern Munich’s supporters are compared with those who root for Joachim Löw’s World Cup winners. The Bavarians have 37 million Facebook fans around the world, with a significant amount of those coming from countries like Thailand and Egypt.
Just the other day, the hierarchy of interest once again became apparent in my twitter notifications. Seconds after I posted the news about Germany centre-back Antonio Rüdiger missing out on his first-ever major international competition due to a knee injury, dozens of Chelsea fans expressed relief that their club hadn’t bought the AS Roma defender, completely drowning out those who enquired about his replacement in the Germany team or simply voiced their regret about his mishap.
Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger once described national teams as an “anachronism”, as relics of a bygone era full of barriers that restricted the free movement of players (that didn’t stop him from working as a TV commentator at World Cups and European Championships, you’ll be pleased to hear).
Wenger is right, in a sense: there is something rather backward in making a player’s citizenship one of the most important criteria and in artificially preventing a team made up of professional football players to strengthen in the most logical, professional fashion. Because they cannot sign foreign players for problem positions, national sides are usually deficient in one way or another, and the overall level of football is much lower than in the Champions League as a consequence. Less time to play and train together is also a factor.
Richer, bigger nations can increase their chances by investing in youth development, infrastructure and a good manager, but that won’t make them bulletproof against suffering an unfortunate defeat at the hands of Iceland or Albania.
So yes, we’ll all be watching a qualitatively inferior ‘product’ over the next few weeks, a version of football deliberately stuck in the past. But that’s precisely where the fun lies. For a month, the tediously familiar story arcs about various super coaches under pressure and the focus on a handful of teams who compete with each other in an endless cycle can at least give way to new faces, new sporting miracles and new minor sporting catastrophes.
The results in France might affect fewer people, in total, than those of the elite clubs but they will nevertheless resonate in way that Real Madrid’s Champions League win over Atlético never will, by capturing the attention of entire nations and bringing people together, both physically and in spirit, in one of the last truly collective experiences left in a world of fragmented audiences. Let’s enjoy it. “Real football” will be back soon enough.