In 2002, the then New Jork Jets coach Herm Edwards was asked about games that some considered irrelevant. He became an instant meme (yes, memes existed before twitter…) and his answer lives on today.
YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME
Nowhere in sport is that more apt than in international football.
International football is about winning and losing. That’s it. Each nation has to define what the win is. For Germany, only winning a tournament is seen as successful. For Ireland, success is qualifying for a major tournament. How that goal is achieved is completely immaterial.
This isn’t to say that armchair pundits across the world can’t discuss tactics, team selections and every other variable that international football games can bring. Of course they can, but if a manager achieves his goal, he deserves all the plaudits, even if you disagree with his tactics, team selection and even his manner of dealing with the press.
Senior international football isn’t about player development. The players are all professionals and any improvements they make will be as a result of the training they receive at club level. They only meet up with the international team 5 or 6 times a year. There simply isn’t enough time for any manager to work on improving the players’ technique or tactical awareness. The only job the international manager has is to pick a team and tactics that can achieve a positive result.
The quest for style points shows the disconnect between match going fans, and those who watch on TV looking to comment about it on social media. If you’re at the game, you feel part of the contest. It’s tribal. It’s “us-vs-them” and all sorts of other clichés. Watching on TV, or half-watching on TV like so many of us do, gives just enough distance for some sort of "rational" punditry.
Thankfully, rational punditry has no place in international football. Ask yourself this question, what felt better being robbed by France in 2009 or beating a back-up Italian side in 2016?
If you’ve picked the moral victory, then good luck to you, but most people will pick the win over Italy without caring that they didn’t really try, or they’ll pick the penalty win over Romania when we didn’t have a shot on target in 120 minutes, or the win over the Netherlands when they somehow missed open goal after open goal, or Richard Dunne’s heroics in Moscow when expected goals would have had the game mercy-called off at half time, or Packie Bonner growing 6 arms to keep England out in 1988, or any number of times when an Irish team succeeded without being the “best” team on show.
If you weren’t entertained on any of those nights, then you should stop supporting a team and just watch Ronaldo and Messi try to break every record in the football world every weekend. If you did enjoy those nights, join me in acknowledging that the most entertaining thing a team can do is win and if Ireland beat Denmark on Tuesday night, by hook or by crook, let’s have a party all over the country.