“Not a chance. These have been the best six weeks of my life.” - England backup center back Conor Coady, when asked if he regrets not playing a minute in the European Championships despite being part of the squad
The soccer season is a long, long season. Europe is consumed between the beginning of August and the end of May, give or take a few weeks at either end or in the middle. Terrible weather in the United States forces MLS takes the three worst months of winter off, and even that short break is one of the longest breaks of any league in the world.
This makes it easy to forget that there’s anything important besides club soccer. That there are three or four competitions all going at the same time contributes to the breathless quality; speculation abounds whether (say) Manchester City can conquer the Champions League, finally, and if they can defend their Premier League title, or win the League Cup again, or the FA Cup, or all four at once.
And because of this, the media and the fans spend all year assigning glory to teams and coaches and players based on what they accomplish with their clubs. Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have reached near-sainthood; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has redeemed himself from (insert redemption arc here if we can ever figure out what he did wrong except be reasonably successful); Jose Mourinho has been cast into the pit of fire, or at least sent to Rome.
Then the summer tournaments roll around. Then the players form these temporary teams – yes, they play during the year too, but only for weeks at the time, as minor interruptions to the clearly more important things like the Champions League group stage or the FA Cup sixth round – and after a couple of weeks of training and a few games, it becomes obvious.
These big international tournaments, these temporary brotherhoods and sisterhoods, these times where entire nations come together: they mean way, way more to everyone than club trophies.
England’s trip to second place at the Euros has been notable on the pitch, sure. Wise Norwegian sage Lars Sivertsen probably put it best:
In my lifetime England have been this weird team with great players whose legs and minds suddenly turn to mush when they play tournaments.— Lars Sivertsen (@larssivertsen) July 11, 2021
This summer the players looked like themselves, were one of the best teams in the tournament, got to the final.
This is huge progress.
What’s happening on the pitch isn’t the most notable thing about England, though. Off the pitch, it seems like the team has all fallen in love with each other, and in turn, the country has fallen in love with the team. Every player has publicly spoken about the brotherhood of this team, the deep bonds of the shared experience, and this from the country that absolutely pioneered the “national team broken apart by club rivalries and also possibly conflicts between significant others” model.
It’s not to say that this is guaranteed, of course; France is still stuck in the throes of a reckoning about what one player’s mom said to, and about, another player’s dad. And don’t dismiss this just because they are, you know, French; after winning the 2018 World Cup, everything I said about England could probably have been said about France. Winning breeds brotherhood, it’s true.
Of course, if there’s anyone who shouldn’t forget about the importance of the national team, of the profound and unshakeable bond among a national team and in turn between fans and the team itself, it’s people in the United States. We’re currently in the midst of another epoch of dominance by the U.S. Women’s National Team, and all of the greatness that England has just re-discovered is stuff that we’ve seen for going on five, or ten, or 35 years now.
I could spend four thousand words just buried in statistical minutiae, trying to paint a complete picture of how great the USWNT has been, but in the context of England I’ll go with this one: the England men’s team went 55 years without reaching the final of a major tournament. Since FIFA finally deigned to play a Women’s World Cup in 1991, and the Olympics started playing a women’s soccer tournament in 1996, the longest the USWNT has ever gone without reaching a major-tournament final is five years.
This is also their longest drought without winning a World Cup or a gold medal, in case you were wondering.
The point, though, is that every time the USWNT wins one of these tournaments, the quotes from the players don’t focus on how much talent is on the team or how great the NWSL is for players or how the culture of the national team breeds success. It’s on how close the team is – “23 best friends,” as one of the 2019 World Cup winners said.
This brotherhood and sisterhood is important because it paints a picture of how important and special these experiences are for the players. But while they’re important to the players, for the fans it’s absolutely the pinnacle of the fan experience.
As all-consuming as the Premier League and the Bundesliga and MLS and Serie A are, I rarely hear stories of how the club game sucked in new fans, except in the sense that those fans were indoctrinated by parents and grandparents and siblings and uncles and aunts. There’s a certain inevitability to the “my dad took me to watch [club] every week” story; it’s like telling someone that you’re six feet tall because your dad was six feet tall.
National teams, though, bring in people who were never fans before. Half the men’s soccer fans in the United States are fans because of the 1994, 2002, or 2010 World Cups – and given the instability in women’s club soccer, the percentage of women’s soccer fans with similar stories about the too many USWNT triumphs to list has to be far, far higher.
When these international tournaments roll around, it’s so easy to be blinded by the myopia of club soccer. The European Championships seem like too much to ask of players, after the longest club season ever. That the NWSL and MLS take a break around summer tournaments seems broadly unfair, even more so when you consider the teams who lose players for national-team duty.
And then the tournament takes over, and we remember. For the players, this experience can be the pinnacle of their careers. For the fans – new fans and old fans – these tournaments are the time of their life. For everyone, this experience is far more meaningful than anything club soccer will ever have.