International football. It is the highlight of the footballing calendar for some, where fans worldwide put apart their tribal fanfare and put the country before the club in supporting their nation’s best players in their pursuit of glory on the world stage.
It is every football fan’s dream to see their country lift the World Cup, and hundreds of millions of fans across the globe closely follow their respective country in their international matches – these can be anything from harmless friendlies to the most crucial of qualifying matches, to even historic World Cup finals.
International football, however, has recently developed something of a reputation for dull, nervy and cagey footballing quality, with an uninspiring style of play which tends to deliver low goal tallies. The question is, is there actually a difference in quality between international football matches and league football matches? Do international games produce less goals for example?
This article will seek to answer whether this reputation is strictly accurate, and if so, why might it be that international football does not deliver the same quality which is so often seen in some of the most popular football leagues worldwide
International Football Regarded As Boring?
International football has recently developed a significant reputation of being a tedious, uninspiring and quite frankly mundane part of professional football in recent years.
There is a growing number of European fans – in particular English fans – who are nothing short of resentful when the domestic leagues break for international duties.
This is because they perceive international games as scrappy and a far lower quality than games in the top European domestic leagues, commonly regarded as the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and the Spanish La Liga.
One particular factor which may feed this perception amongst English fans in particular is the predilection of star players to drop out of international squads because of an injury, only to be fit and available for selection at their club again as soon as the international break is over.
A good example of this is Raheem Sterling dropping out of the England squad before the November international break, only to feature in Manchester City’s 2-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur on 21st November – only three days after the end of the international break – coming on as a substitute in the 72nd minute.
What this means for the reputation of international football is two-fold. Firstly, it tells you that some of the biggest stars in world football at club level sometimes look for the slightest reason to get out of international duty. After all, their loyalty is to their club first and foremost, as they are formally contracted and are paid far more by their club than their nation – gone are the days where every single footballer sees playing for their country as the pinnacle of the professional game.
Secondly, the reputation of international football also suffers because it is often deprived of the best footballers in the world. When players who are regarded as the best their country has to offer aren’t playing, then the quality of football inevitably suffers.
Another prime example of clubs holding players back from international duty in years gone by was Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Players such as Nicky Butt have gone on record to say that the legendary manager had a few tricks which he would use to keep some players at the club during international breaks.
Butt was quoted in 2013 as saying that [Sir Alex] would often hold two or three United players back from international duty despite them not carrying any injuries, and that he would rotate who he held back from internationals.
While Butt offered only an observational perspective on the topic of internationals, and within the limited context of selection, it speaks volumes for just how much one club could influence the selection options of an international football set up such as England’s.
When Butt was playing for Manchester United, his fellow teammates included players such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, all of whom are considered some of the best players to have ever played for their country.
If Sir Alex Ferguson held a couple of such players back from international duty every so often, and other managers employed similar tricks either in the past or in more recent years, then the quality of international football would certainly have been deprived.
Another factor which is important to consider is the shift in balance between international teams compared to club squads. At club level, you will generally have players of similar ability, or at least in the same range of ability, whereas on the international stage you often see squads with one or two world class players surrounded by a dozen mediocre players in comparison.
The perfect examples of this in recent years would be Argentina and Portugal, who have respectively had Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as their star players, but they have rarely had more than one or two fellow squad members at a time who have possessed even comparable abilities on the football pitch.
It is also important to take into account the amount of time – or lack thereof – which players have together on international duty. Players will compete for their respective clubs on a weekend, and usually fly out to their international camp within 24 hours of the end of their club game. They will then usually have a midweek fixture for their nation, so international squads quite often have less than four or five days to gel as a team and work on various strategies and tactics.
This often translates to a lack of quality in some international teams where there is an imbalance in the quality of their players. Take Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal for example, he is arguably the best player the country has ever produced and is certainly far and away the best attacking option they have had in the last few years.
When the squad has not had a lot of time to prepare tactics or develop a coherent system of play, and there are a lot of Portuguese players in the team who can only dream of being as good as Ronaldo, not only is there a significant amount of pressure placed on him by the fans and the media, but also his fellows players because they will depend on him to produce the goods for the team.
This can often be seen in how the team plays – they seek to get the ball to the ‘star player’ as often as possible, and this usually results in very predictable and one-dimensional football. It also makes it easier for the opponent to defend as they are only having to handle one attacking threat.
As such, teams that revolve around a star player generally don’t play great football – even if the star player lights up the show, it is an individual performance… and an exhilarating individual performance in the midst of a team sport does not always make a game interesting.
In order to help demonstrate the entertainment levels of international football in comparison to domestic football, the table below outlines the average goals per game at each of the last six World Cups and Euro tournaments.
Also included is the average amount of goals per game of the top four domestic leagues in the world in the season leading up to the World Cup. As mentioned earlier the best leagues in the world are widely regarded as the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and German Bundesliga. Almost all of the best players in the world in recent years have spent the majority of their footballing careers at clubs in these leagues.
International Football Produces Less Goals
Goals per gameCompetition201820142010200620021998World Cup2.642.672.272.302.522.67Euros2.122.452.482.482.742.06English Premier League2.682.772.772.482.632.68Spanish La Liga2.692.752.712.462.532.66Italian Serie A2.682.722.612.612.632.73German Bundesliga2.793.162.832.812.922.79
 Euro 2016,  Euro 2012,  Euro 2008,  Euro 2004,  Euro 2000,  Euro 1996
As you can see from the table, the goals per game at the World Cup in 2010 and 2006 were noticeably lower than the same figure for the four domestic leagues, even though these were regarded as fairly exciting World Cup tournaments in South Africa and Germany respectively.
On top of this, the goals per game figure has been lower at each and every single World Cup compared to the four major domestic leagues since 1998, with the exception of the Spanish La Liga of 1998, which was only 0.01 goals per game less than the World Cup of the same year.
The gulf in goals per game between the Euros and the domestic leagues has historically been smaller, however the most recent edition of the Euros in 2016 produced the lowest goals per game out of any of the competitions in question.
This provides a self-evident fact: less goals are scored at the top level of international football than at the top level of domestic football. With the Euros, this dropoff in goalscoring could potentially be explained by the expansion of the competition from 16 teams to 24 teams, which has directly resulted in some national teams competing in the tournament which simply don’t possess the footballing quality of well established European powerhouses.
This means that when a newcomer faces up against a titan of European football, such as Germany, France or Spain, they will be far more likely to employ a defensive strategy from the first minute with the intention of sneaking a goal in and holding on for the win, or even playing for the draw from the start, especially in the group stages. This is simply because playing with an open and attacking style of play would leave weaker teams really vulnerable to the attacking prowess of Europe’s better teams.
On the other hand it is important to consider that the amount of goals per game does not always speak for the quality of a football match with an absolute degree of accuracy. There have been games which are end to end, full of expansive and thrilling football with many shots, but still end up 0-0 or 1-0 either way.
Similarly, there are plenty of games of low quality football which produce copious amounts of goals, and these tend to be games where defensive errors are common and it does not take particularly brilliant or creative football in order to score goals.
One thing that cannot be ignored is how unpredictable football can be, and this is a factor which is shared equally between international football and domestic football. Every now and then a completely random result springs up out of seemingly nowhere, whether that is in a contest between two evenly matched teams on paper or a contest between a giant of the game and a relative minnow.
World Cup Analysis
The most famous example of such a game on the international stage would be Germany 7-1 Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. In the build up to this game it was too close to call, if anything Brazil were slight favourites with the home advantage.
The Germans, however, dumped the hosts (also favourites to win the tournament) out of their home World Cup in such an emphatic manner that years later the Brazilian football team is still trying to rebuild its reputation as a footballing titan having suffered such a setback.
Another example would be the Nations League game between Spain and Germany in November 2020, with the Spaniards beating the former world champions a staggering 6-0. Neither side was at full strength for this fixture but the two sides rarely ever play each other, having only played against each other 10 times between June 1994 and November 2020.
Despite the infrequency with which the two sides meet, the contest was expected to be a tightly fought one in which either side could come out on top. So to see Spain sweep aside Germany with such ease came as a shock to many football fans paying attention to the Nations League.
Similar instances also exist in the top domestic leagues, however. Manchester United defeated Arsenal 8-2 in August 2011 and while United would have expected to beat their rivals from London at the time, most fans would have expected it to be a good contest and relatively evenly fought – nobody would have dared to predict a scoreline so extreme.
Conversely, every so often a complete underdog does a number on one of the stronger teams in the league. The example of Aston Villa beating Liverpool 7-2, with the latter being reigning Premier League Champions, in October 2020, perfectly demonstrates how an underdog can turn over a quality side with one good performance, as rare as that may be.
In this game Aston Villa played with a flair and flamboyance which is rarely seen on the international stage, they moved the ball around the pitch seeking to punch holes in the Liverpool defence as though there were no possible consequences to playing such attacking football, and this style of play worked on the night against an effectively full-strength Liverpool team.
It can be said that examples like the one outlined above present themselves more often in domestic leagues because it is a season-long campaign, where it is rare that one game defines a whole season, whereas in international competitions every game counts so much more and teams stand to lose out a lot more by dropping points in any one particular fixture.
Consequently, the fear of losing in international matches is far more significant and this is not at all conducive in producing good quality football, in fact it creates the exact opposite effect and results in teams playing negatively. It can be said that many international teams play to avoid losing, rather than playing to win.
The Game Is Set Up For Domestic Football
Overall, the gulf in quality between international and domestic football can predominantly be seen in the style of play rather than ranges of statistics. A wide set of factors both on and off the pitch result in international matches being played under very different circumstances to domestic league matches.
The most noticeable factors as outlined earlier are the fact that the makeup of international squads is completely out of kilter with what domestic club squads will shape up as. In international teams you often see an individual who is regarded as world class surrounded by a handful of players who may struggle to be selected for regular first team football at their respective club.
On the other hand domestic clubs can sign players from wherever they want to fit whatever purpose they need, and as such domestic clubs often have far more balance in footballing ability across the squad.
Also taking into account the miniscule timeframe with which international squads have in order to develop styles of play and work on their game plans and tactics, it is rarely more than 10-14 days at a time for international breaks and a maximum of six weeks for a major international tournament such as the Euros or the World Cup, giving the players and management setups barely any time to implement meaningful strategies.
There are plenty of reasons why international football has developed a reputation amongst football fans to be tedious, uninspiring and a waste of time to watch – and while there remain elements of the international game to get genuinely excited about, it is easy to see how domestic leagues hold the competitive edge over international matches when it comes to entertaining the fans.