Michel Platini was one of the greatest footballers of the 20th century. He was also one of the most powerful men in world football for much of the early 21st century. Then came his downfall. As part of the multitude of scandals that wracked and almost ruined FIFA, Platini was the highest profile casualty aside from maybe Sepp Blatter himself.
Now he is exiled from the game, it is probably best to remember Platini the player, though this new season has seen one of his bright ideas come to fruition. There may be only about five people who understand how it actually works, but the early signs are that the UEFA Nations League has changed international football in Europe for the better.
Until filthy lucre took him down, Platini was always a progressive thinker and saw the international friendly for what it had long been: meaningless except to fill the coffers of individual national football associations, or in the case of some of the weird and wonderful friendlies that, say, Brazil have played, fill the satchels of various agents and promoters.
Brazil were in action again on Tuesday night and against Argentina, no less. The hottest rivalry in South American soccer was played in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a nation in the news for more serious matters at the moment but somewhere with geopolitical football ambitions. The paying public in the Red Sea city were thus greeted with a game of the type of go-slow that haters of the international break have moaned about for years. Until Miranda slotted in Neymar’s pass for the only goal, whomever was paying for this match had received little in the way of value for money.
Contrast the sludge of that affair with the action that took place in the Nations League. In Paris, France staged a memorable comeback against a Germany team playing for the future of coach Jogi Loew, with two goals from Antoine Griezmann. In the past, such a match, while nice to watch two big beasts in action, would still have meant little, and Loew might have escaped scrutiny.
And yet the competitive edge of the new competition, while nowhere near the white heat of World Cup and European Championship finals, has meant that teams have something to play for. A team like Germany does not wish to be relegated from the top echelon, something they are now in imminent danger of after defeats to Holland and now France.
The Nations League gives teams the chance to play against opponents of their level. France and Germany rarely meet until the latter stages of the big competitions, as seedings keep them apart in the cakewalk that qualifying has become in these times of 32-team World Cups and 24-team Euro finals.
For a team like England, whose Achilles heel is being defeated by the first decent they come up against, the new competition offers chance to gain greater experience against such teams. On the field, the English disease is going to pieces once the pressure of facing an opponent with a better passing game descends.
How effective greater practice proves will not be known until the next Euros come around in 2020, but games like Monday’s 3-2 thriller in Seville offer confidence for a better future. Beating Spain in such a manner would almost certainly not have happened without having played – and lost 2-1 – to the Spanish in September. For a manager like Gareth Southgate, on a learning curve himself, that quick turnaround and a higher grade of opposition is ideal for someone trying to make sure last summer’s good work does not go to waste.
To those like Loew and Ireland’s Martin O’Neill, both under pressure,and staring relegation down the Nations League ladder in the face, perhaps the competition has come too thick and fast, but international football’s rhythm has been too slack for too long. There is now little room to hide for ailing regimes.
Kicking a ball in anger, rather than the diffidence of England’s Sven Goran Eriksson era, where entire teams were replaced at half-time in friendlies and the result thus rendered irrelevant, is distinctly preferable.
All this extra action, especially at the start of the season, might not meet the approval of clubs, already concerned that prized assets get little rest after major tournaments but international weeks this season have contained intrigue, action and actual football storylines: Luis Enrique was the saviour of Spain, though after Monday, maybe not so much.
It has been a promising start to the new venture and it is to be hoped the initial flush of excitement does not fade with novelty value as the competition progresses. Platini may be disgraced, but he was once wise enough to find a way to revive international football.