International Friendlies – Yes, They Can Work!

The international friendly…managers despise them, fans frown upon them, the very mention of them is enough to turn the air blue.

The battle to eliminate these pointless fixtures from the football calendar rages intensely year on year, but their financial rewards ensure their safety. How else will the FA make money on Wembley?

But for all the criticism, the mithering and the despair, they can have genuine benefits beyond acting as a cash cow for football authorities – just ask Giovanni Trapattoni.

The Republic of Ireland’s three-week end of season camp has resulted in four wins, four clean sheets, and an (alleged) international trophy.

Granted the Carling Cup of Nations was in essence a glorified set of friendlies, but Trapattoni would have seen things quite differently.

For Trap, it was an ideal opportunity to not only build confidence ahead of a vital qualifying match, but also integrate inexperienced talent and work on team building. In all 21 players represented the boys in green over the four games.

And it worked. Saturday’s routine win against Macedonia keeps Ireland in touch with the top of Group B for a place in next summer’s European Championships, but it was in Tuesday’s exhibition match with Italy where the work of the last three weeks really came to fruition.

Without the likes of Shay Given, John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Aiden McGeady, Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane, Ireland defeated an Italian side boasting Giuseppe Rossi, a reported £40 million target for Barcelona, the mercurial talents of Andrea Pirlo and, Fifa 11’s poster boy, Giorgio Chiellini. 

In fact the Irish team, captained by the much-maligned Paul McShane, had an average of only 13 international caps each, and fielded only four regular Premier League players.

The game may have seemed meaningless in the build-up, but the 2-0 victory justifies Trapattoni’s strategy. The breakthrough of Stephen Ward, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Foley and Simon Cox widens Ireland’s options, and could provide invaluable impetus ahead of September’s crucial qualifiers versus Slovakia and Russia – wily management by the adopted leprechaun, and a rare example that friendlies can work.

Oh and one more thing on the subject of Ireland, well done Robbie Keane on becoming the first British or Irish player to reach 50 international goals.

His remarkable goalscoring feat has been met with minimal fanfare in the English media, and this is because of the idea that he has scored his goals against sub-standard opposition.

But as it stands, Keane has scored against five of the top ten teams in the FIFA rankings, including two at the 2002 World Cup against Germany and Spain, and also against France in the 2010 World Cup play-off, before Monsieur Henry’s handy intervention; all indelible memories for any Irish fan.

And it must also be remembered he plays in the same team as Kevin Kilbane and Keith Andrews, not Xavi and Iniesta!

The legs may have lost some of their youthful exuberance, and the somersault replaced by a less acrobatic celebration, but Keano remains at his talismanic best when in the green of Éire, and long may it continue.

James Riley

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