As most will be aware, FIFA have been talking about making the Women’s World Cup a biennial event. This is a really, really bad idea. But away from the world of trying to monetize the growing women’s game whilst neglecting those lower down the rungs, FIFA are forcing the hand[s] of those around the world with their updated international calendar.
Although federations like US Soccer might play fast and loose with how much attention they pay to the international calendar, the regimentation of when teams can and can not play international matches (or simply call teams into camp) is keenly observed elsewhere in the world. Which is why the news that FIFA have removed another international window from the women’s calendar has upset a fair few national associations around the world.
Lending to more of a transitional in-between calendar, 2020 will be the first year without a window in January – the week at the start of the year usually used for a warm-weather camp. The first window of the new year will in fact be in March [four months since the last in November], and in a tournament year will ask serious questions of how well teams can prepare. (This is, of course, only an issue for the small number who will be taking part in the Olympics).
The window, usually reserved for friendly tournaments like the Algarve and Cyprus Cups (and in recent years, the She Believes and Cup of Nations) has been cut down too. Only three non-competitive matches can be played during the window. There is, however, dispensation for those playing qualifying tournaments, just as there is a bloc earlier in the year for the CONCACAF and CAF qualifiers.
The reduction of the March window also means a reformat of the 12-team [Algarve style] cups, and ultimately a reduction in the size of the field. When speaking to Anna Signeul at the Cyprus Cup this year, she suggested the new rules would see more teams break off into four-team tournaments; with the advent of the Pinatar Cup and the Tournoi de France féminin, she has been proved right. The coach, who helped Scotland qualify for their first senior tournament of the modern era before taking charge of Finland, was the brains behind the Cyprus Cup and founded it. She was desperate for Scotland – then a lowly nation – to improve, and playing better opposition was the quickest way to get there.
As coach of Finland, Signeul is in a position to judge with the benefit of hindsight. Although there is more infrastructure in Finland and the team are at a higher calibre than Scotland in 2005, there is still plenty of work that need to be done with the team. And she is aware that contact time and friendlies against strong and varied teams are vital for the improvement of the national team.
The national team boss spoke of the understanding between herself and club coaches when she was still with Scotland, having negotiated when and when not to call Kim Little into camps. In the same vein, she can understand that some nations with players far flung across the globe would have to employ the same diplomacy— sometimes the lengthy plane trips are not worth it. However, the Swede was clear in her feelings that the removal of another window would benefit players in the higher echelons of the domestic game but would, again, forget about those outside of the minority at the top.
In Cyprus, she didn’t mince her words. “I’m disappointed in UEFA and FIFA that women’s football is just serving the best clubs,” Signeul said. “I know the best clubs are putting the money in now and are making the best players so they say [to the national teams], ‘we have the money to give your players a full time job so you should be happy we’re taking care of them.’”
Signeul continued: “But for me it’s working with everyone else, not all my players are in that environment, it’s sad for the other players because they don’t have the opportunity to be away with the national team now and they don’t get the chance to play a game like we had in January against Denmark; very competitive game. Now they can’t come away with the national team, have high intensity training sessions… something they don’t get perhaps in their clubs. I’m disappointed.”
2020 will be more of a transitional window with things shifting again in 2021. Namely, the March window (which has, at times, started in February) will entirely shift into February, bridging the gap between the last window of the year and first of the next. Moving forward, the windows will be in February, April, June, September, October, and November, although some may start in the previous month or end in the following. But it’s hard to escape the fact that teams will lose at least three matches.
FIFA vs UEFA
Going back to the suggestion of a World Cup every two years, it would seem [from afar at least] that FIFA are continuing to butt heads with UEFA’; the Women’s European Championships, like the men’s, fall every two years before/after the respective World Cups. UEFA teams make up 12 of the current top 20 and 28 of the current top 50 in the world, totaling more teams than the other five confederations combined.
The shifting of windows is already having its effects felt, as 17 European teams will use March to play some of their European qualifiers— explaining the absence of a team like Russia at the friendly tournaments. With the current format, UEFA teams play eight or ten (depending on the size of their group) qualification matches for the Euros over a 13-month period— something that is still regarded as hugely beneficial for nations with lesser developed women’s football programmes. If FIFA continue to squeeze the international calendar, the traditional UEFA qualification cycles may well have to be re-thought.
Not every year will have major tournaments that need to be qualified for (unless another World Cup pops up on the calendar), meaning teams like Australia are once again free to host the Cup of Nations. While there are serious benefits to be gained from it – not least avoiding the physical drain of excessive travel as well as the financial bump– in pursuing more four-team tournaments, there is a general shift to more regionalized tournaments (with the SheBelieves Cup a notable exception).
At the 2020 Algarve Cup, New Zealand will be the only non-European nation represented, and would categorically not benefit from a draw that sees them play Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but would hope to clash with teams that offer up different styles. The Pinatar Cup is composed of four European teams (including two British ones), and while there is a benefit to it, all four would arguably get more from a previous Algarve or Cyprus Cup line-up.
There is a mutual benefit in Thailand or DPR Korea playing at one of the (formerly 12-team) tournaments; not only do they get the feel for European opposition, but European opposition get a feel for Asian teams. Likewise, when Mexico or South Africa go to Cyprus, there is room for learning on both sides. As was glaring at the World Cup, England’s lack of experience against nations like Cameroon was jarring.
Teams learn by being tested, but there is only so much you can learn if you only play teams from your own confederation. The longer-term effects of removing international windows look to be ones that will damage those outside of the world’s elite.