What is the international break?

Alex Stewart ponders the true meaning of the international break…

Break, n. among other things:
6. An interruption or a disruption in continuity or regularity: television programming without commercial breaks.
7. A pause or interval, as from work: a coffee break.
8. A sudden or marked change: a break in the weather.
(From the free dictionary on the internet)

The international break, as a thing, provokes a variety of responses. A quick and in no way scientific survey conducted on social media earlier by yours truly revealed an array of responses which ran from the wholly positive to the suicidally inclined (injuries, etc etc). A quick trawl of internet-based relevant content shows a predisposition for mordant articles on the impact of said break, the opportunities it creates for club/country schism, luxated joints, and general fatigue (With football itself, even? Is there too much of a good thing?).

Actual fans, not thrallish hacks, seem to run contra-narrative and quite enjoy the change, though some express a genuine and understandable lack of interest based on: aforementioned ‘too much of a good thing’; partisan loyalty to club outweighing country; England not being as good to watch as [insert team of your choice here]. Without doubt, though, the ‘international break’ provokes a myriad of responses and a range of conflicting emotions/thoughts (is emotion too strong a word for this? Not if you’re Brendan Rodgers).

The origins of the phrase ‘international break’ are themselves murky. Wikipedia merely states that it is a “period of time set aside by FIFA for scheduled international matches per their International Match Calendar. Also known as FIFA International Day/Date(s) (sic.).” Even the immensely knowledgeable and demonstrably nerdish Jonathan Wilson (pace) said that he recalls Sunderland having to take breaks in the early ‘90s if three or more players were suborned to the national team and makes the safe assumption that the EPL would likewise have halted in toto, but cannot recall exactly when this practice began. I can safely state, having recourse to ed. Golesworthy’s The Encyclopaedia of Association Football (sixth edition: published 1963 and declarative due to being ‘completely re-written’ and thereby up-to-date and on the money), that in 1963 “Football League clubs still retain the right to refuse to release players for international matches to any National Association except the F.A.”; given that the foreword to Golesworthy’s magnum opus was written by none other than Sir Stanley Rous, then president of FIFA, it is safe to assume this information was accurate at the time of going press and adhered to strictly.

This suggests an obvious shift both in the approach to, and structure and nomenclature of, the period when international games were played, and the obligations of clubs therein, between 1963 and the early 90s. Tony Cascarino’s biography, which among other delights recalls his international career (1985-1999), strongly implies that international games were squeezed in between fixtures (not wanting to incur Big Jack’s wrath leads Tony to aggravate a knee injury, which inflames his relationship with Chelsea fans already a little down on his productivity) unless a tournament was ongoing.

Thorough trawls of Google, Wikipedia and Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round do not shed any light on when something of the nature of the international break appeared and nor when it came to be ‘the international break’. Phrases such as this one, which now appears everywhere and clings, limpet-like, to any article published in a relevant fortnight, often arise from a linguistic necessity, yes, because someone needs to generate a metonym to capture, in an easily construed way, exactly what this thing that we are now all talking about is. Now perhaps it was FIFA who coined it, or perhaps the media (and by media I am also referring to Sky as a broadcaster of content as much as comment). Useful shorthand it may be — in fact it is — but the term has awkward undertones.

Language is more exact and more revealing than we sometimes give it credit for and the term ‘international break’ is no different. As outlined above, a ‘break’ is “an interruption or a disruption in continuity or regularity”, “a pause or interval, as from work”, and “a sudden or marked change”. There are perhaps more sinister undertones at work too: break as “violation”, as “severing”, as “separation”. Ironically, perhaps, the only wholly benign sense of ‘break’ (coffee aside, though obviously with the caveat that it is abnormal vis a vis standard conditions and a state from which one must return) is the sequence of positive-outcome shots in a game of snooker, a continuous, unbroken (oddly) chain of success (presumably the term derives from the opening shot rupturing the collection of balls and then continuation of that sequence, not that that ever happens, in snooker at any rate).

So the ‘international break’ is an interruption or an interval; it must be, because that’s the word that’s been chosen or, at least, sort of chosen itself.

And that’s why who chose it is important. If FIFA chose it, then it’s a conundrum because it implies that FIFA’s stock-in-trade, XI vs XI picked on (even in today’s vague sense of it) nationality, is somehow an interruption to the other mode of the game and thus, by implication, either inferior or subordinate (or both). Work and regularity (here being broken, not by coffee, but by the pesky coalescence of one country’s players from a spread of teams in different localities/even countries to take on another similarly assembled team) must therefore be defined as the day-to-day football of domestic competitions.

This, indeed, makes sense because it is the more frequently occurring event. But does that mean that international games are subordinate, as the term implies? Should it be subordinate just because it happens less? International football was once the pinnacle of a player’s career. The World Cup is still the premier prize, even if the competition, oddly, is often contrasted pejoratively with the Champions League.

I can’t help but wonder, then, if the term was hammered into being by Sky and/or a complaisant media (easy enough to achieve if you own a lot of it), to remind us all that what matters, what REALLY MATTERS is what we pay for, the Super Sunday, the Mitchell and Webb sketch blood and thunder of the EPL provided by (at great individual cost to us, the consumer) Sky? That international football is a pain because it can interrupt or even damage the quality of our paid-for entertainment, their product.

That the delicately negative connotations of the term are (almost) as much to blame for the swathe of crotchety stories that accompany every fortnight away from THE BIGGEST SHOW ON EARTH (ongoing, ad infinitum), regardless of the fact that, when asked, many people actually seem to really enjoy it and it can produce some really great games (issues of nationalism and so on deftly ignored here because I don’t have time or word-limit or subtlety enough). All I am trying to say, really, is that we ought to pay more attention to what we call things, generally, and that even what seem like innocuously literal phrases are not always as neutrally inoffensive and bland as they seem (see also: Women’s football, not just football). And that we should not let our enjoyment of something, or our openness to enjoying it, be coloured by a sneaky use of registers of meaning imposed on us by someone else for their own ends. Of course, you may still hate it, and if Nathaniel Clyne goes and ruptures his cruciate, I’ll probably join you.

Post-script: I wanted to make an argument here for calling it instead ‘the international caesura’, because this works in a variety of ways, not least that caesuras are a pause rather than a hiatus and their presence augments or at least compliments the meaning in a stanza of poetry. But that would be wanky and I think I may have been that enough already. So, no alternative — make up your own.

Post-script 2: I realise also that I may have inferred from a simple decision (perhaps in the absence of another obvious contender) a lot of things from the choice of one word. Do football honchos really give this sort of thing that much thought? Hopefully, though, if you’ve got to this point I’ve at least persuaded you to think about it and that is good enough for me.

@AFHStewart; @The_False_Nine

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