Now that the European soccer season is over, it's time for … even more soccer!
The men's international game takes center stage this weekend with the start of COVID-delayed editions of the European Championships and Copa América. It's a festival of fútbol, but while international tournaments may be the most-watched part of soccer, the play on the field is something less than top-notch.
The pandemic will make things even worse than usual. Europe-based players have effectively been playing nonstop for a year, with the end of the 2019-20 season and the entire 2020-21 season shoehorned into a small window. Fatigue and injuries are usually a problem during summer tournaments. The weeks ahead could be record-breaking, and not in a good way.
Even without the exhaustion factor, international soccer is just a different game than club soccer.
It takes not only top players, but a forward-thinking, detail-oriented coach to succeed in club soccer. Think about Pep Guardiola's exhaustively detailed tactics at Manchester City, or Liverpool's highly orchestrated pressing under Jürgen Klopp. Chelsea, champions of Europe, had to replace Frank Lampard with the obsessive Thomas Tuchel to achieve greatness.
International soccer will never be that way. It's impossible to expect all-star teams to coalesce into groups that know each other well enough to really rise above. Occasional practices and games every few months are not enough to execute complicated systems. Teams have to keep things basic and simple.
Consider France, with so much talent the squad could be split into France Blanc and France Bleu and both teams would still make the quarterfinals this summer. Much of that talent is on the attacking end of the field — Mbappé, Pogba, Griezmann, Coman, etc.
And yet France has often played the tall, physical, and slow Olivier Giroud up front. A teammate once called him a "go-kart among Ferraris." The proper automotive metaphor is probably the pickup truck — large but useful. Adept at using his body to shield the ball from defenders, he allows France to whang long passes off various parts of his torso instead of trying to engineer a finicky, finely tuned attacking machine.
Interestingly, when the Olympics kick off and the women's game moves to the forefront in late July, we will see the biggest exception to this rule: the USA women. The team plays 20 to 25 games every year, including a decent number against the world's other best teams. The U.S. has remarkable talent and the deepest women's league, but playing those two dozen games a year has helped transform it into the most dominant national soccer team of all time. It's truly a team, not just a collection of all-stars.
Even without aesthetic perfection on the field, though, international soccer might be the best-loved part of the game. Last Sunday's USA- Mexico game, a madcap classic that ended with the Americans on top, is the type that made so many soccer lovers into fans in the first place.
The continental rivalry is both famously contentious and perennially competitive. Thanks to the close links between the two countries, the fans in the stands in Denver were evenly divided. Twice Mexico went ahead, twice the U.S. came back, the crowd roaring each time with fury and passion.
France vs. Germany is coming up. So is England vs. Scotland and Argentina vs. Uruguay. And, if we're lucky, more just like them.
What fan could possibly resist?