Thursday, July 12, 2012

Friendly Rivalries and Footballing Reasons

After the Euros, and at a time when L'Equipe is running breaking news items on the number of Ligue 1 teams' Academy players to have passed their Bac, it can feel like there is a lack of football.


There is an actual tournament going on right now, the U19 European Championships, where today's semi-finals will see England meet Greece (15.45 CET) and Spain meet France (19.00 CET) - and the Olympics are coming (more on that later, please try to avoid bringing a bag); but there's an absolute riot of meaningless lopsided match-ups going on as teams try to run off the holiday weight, integrate new players, in some cases new managers, and make everyone feel better about themselves before the serious stuff kicks off in August.

Yesterday, in a pre-season friendly, PSG beat Austrian third division side Sportverein Stegersbach 9-0, in one of those matches that tips over from being sport to outright bullying.  Austria is currently playing host to several football teams fond of airmiles and Sachertorte, with Manchester City and Lyon also in place, having people over to stay such as CSKA Moscow, Al-Hilal, Dynamo Dresden, Beskitas etc.

The general approach for French teams seems to be like a lot of people's holiday plans for a year - one 'proper' trip away (probably to Austria), a couple of weekend breaks, and some days out in the local vicinity.  On the day-trip front, there's a Corsican mini-league featuring AC Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Gazelec before Bastia nip home to put the kettle on in case Liverpool do actually show up on 4 August (nothing on their website); MHSC are also saving up the travel budget with short jaunts out to Mende, Avignon and Nice before the big trip to the US, where they will prepare for the Trophee de Champions by playing Kansas City Sport (24 July) while Lyon will be seeking to have an impact on Montreal.

However, as with the difference between tourists and travellers, the hardcore pre-season tour now has to include at least three continents, with China and the US preferred destinations purely for footballing reasons.  Manchester United are hitting South Africa, China and Scandinavia; Arsenal are throwing in Malaysia (where they will play MCFC) and Hong Kong; and PSG are popping over to America, presumably miffed not to be part of the Trophee de Champions match between MHSC and OL, which this year will continue the tradition of being played in a Francophone country by taking place at New York's Red Bull Arena.  Liverpool, Spurs, Villa and Stoke are all heading over the US as well.

Pre-season friendlies can be a double-edged sword - the footballing reasons behind the multi-continent tour are clear but there's a decent chance the whole team will be suffering from jetlag and earache after all that flying around and won't know where the hell they are from one day to the next; also, while beating anyone 9-0 must be a nice feeling, that result will (rightly) be seen as meaningless, as the top team is expected to be, well, top - but an unexpected loss to the minnow of choice can be taken more seriously.  OK, Guingamp and Istres are in Ligue 2, they're not mugs, but those 0-1 losses are still a bit embarrassing for Evian and Toulouse respectively.  This could explain why the first friendly is usually a gimme - Stegersbach, for example, or Arsenal kicking things off with a gentle 45 minutes against Southampton - if you are the first team on the calendar for one of the big boys, you're considered to be cannon fodder. 

But there are some intriguing match-ups in there - some in the far-flung footballing reasons part of the tour, such as the aforementioned Manchester City v Arsenal (China) and Chelsea v PSG (New York), but also in the European City Break category; Benfica are taking on both Lille and Marseille, Lyon play Athletic Bilbao, MHSC go to Espanyol Barcelona, while Stripey Barcelona will take on PSG and Manchester United.  There's maybe some 'U and Non-U' going on here - purely for footballing reasons, of course.  

Yesterday also saw Les Bleues beating Russia 3-0 in a pre-'lympics friendly; a slightly more testing occasion than their previous match against Romania (6-0), as Russia did actually manage a couple of shots on goal. National team friendlies can suffer from the same problems as club ones - flying around all over the place (Spain), meaningless hammerings (see below), worrying defeats (Switzerland v Germany), visiting South Americans getting used to the weather before the 'lympics (Denmark v Brazil, Russia v Uruguay), and footballing reasons (Spain again, playing South Korea and China).  There is also the added issue that such matches are factored into the totally logical FIFA Rankings, which currently have England in 4th and Brazil in 11th. 

Pre-Euros, the same unqualified names turned up time and again to act as pacemaker for the teams heading for Polkraine, such as Estonia, beaten in turn by Croatia (3-1), Ukraine (4-0) and France (4-0).  Estonia, of course, only lost out on a place at the Euros by losing a play-off to the Republic of Ireland, so the tournament collectively dodged a bullet there.  Also, we learned something very important from England's two 1-0 wins against Norway and Belgium, namely that Cahill can't play football with a broken jaw.

But when there is nothing else on, we will watch - and in France, as Canal+ scrabbles around in vain for some football to show before being Ligue-less next season, and Direct 8 continues its cheerful support of the women's game, we can watch - and have that conversation again...

England: We beat Spain!
Spain: It was a friendly.
England: But...we beat Spain!
Spain: It was a friendly. We don't care.
England: But...we beat Spain!
Spain: Kiss our silverware, losers.