“Competitions” such as the International Champions Cup miss the point of pre-season games
8 August ~ Last week I went to a football match in which nothing was won or lost, the pace was slow and the flow stilted by 13 substitutions. I’ve seen Burnley before. I’ve watched Rangers for decades. And I’ve attended more friendlies than most fans would think advisable in one lifetime. But when the post denied Burnley the chance to go 3-0 up after just 23 minutes I realised it could become the biggest defeat I’d ever seen my team suffer and that, consequently, I cared deeply about this match.
As secondary competitions from the FA Cup to the Europa League are diluted by sponsor-led media and administrators, friendlies are becoming formalised and hyped – purely because football snobs regularly deride “non-competitive” games – when their very informality and lack of consequence is what fans need. It can’t be "everything to play for" all the time.
Groundhopper websites, prescribing what constitutes a “bagging”, often claim friendlies don’t count. Yet clubs still seem to charge you for entry and, while we’ve all been bored rigid at moribund league games, I’ve attended pre-season games with real atmosphere – Rangers beating Chelsea 2-0 at a packed Ibrox in July 2007 – and with real bite: ex-Ranger Alex Ferguson slating the ref and the Rangers support as Eric Cantona was sent-off and Manchester United lost 1-0 in August 1994’s “Ibrox International Challenge Trophy”.
Today’s bloated football calendar blurs the lines further. Half of Scotland’s representatives are out of Europe before the league season has started and holders Ross County are out the League Cup before the friendlies are finished. Pre-season Burnley, eventually winning 3-1, provided Rangers with their stiffest test of a season already begun. Our League Cup group let the fans reacquaint themselves with their stadium, like trying on an old suit after the summer holidays, and see the new players in the new kit – ie all the stuff friendlies are usually for.
This is partly down to SPFL experimentation with summer football and UEFA’s bulging fixture list. But there’s increasing general confusion about attending friendlies. Does it make you a victim of cynical marketing or someone who sees beyond a fixture’s label?
I’ve been locked out of two Rangers games in my life. One was a friendly. Maurice Johnston, the first Catholic player knowingly signed in decades, made his home debut against Tottenham on a summery Sunday afternoon. Such idiosyncrasies can make any friendly more memorable than technically competitive ties. And because the cloggers aren’t match fit, friendlies allow artists to showboat: I’ll never forget Steven Gerrard gracefully destroying Rangers in 2008.
Today’s blanket TV coverage has led to nominally competitive games, such as the Italian and UEFA Super Cup finals, being staged in different countries and continents because they’re de facto friendlies. The reverse is true of the International Champions Cup – a series of friendlies hawking Champions League contenders across China, Australia and the US. It’s an inevitable development of the four-team, two-day, polyglot pre-season tournaments once hosted by the likes of Arsenal, Newcastle and Wembley.
Fans in other continents don’t need “friendly competitions” to see European sides. They just need friendlies. Broadcasters need competitions as packaging. I’ve only ever seen two non-European club sides in the flesh: Brazil’s Internacional of Porto Alegre – another Ibrox four-team tournament – and a South Korean team at St Mirren one Friday night in the early 1990s in one of those reassuringly private fixtures not advertised in national press or recorded in your Rothmans.
Politics, bouncing stadiums and life-long memories bagged – the same hasn’t always been true of non-friendlies, be they an area semi-final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy or a World Cup final packed with journalists, corporate executives and competition winners. Friendlies should let us just watch pros playing football. They let fans show our team – and our sport – we love them for what they are rather than whatever hype they might live up to. Alex Anderson