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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the International Break

The international break is the most loathsome of calendar events, but there are still opportunities to wring some manner of joy out of them, especially in a World Cup year.

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To year-round club football enthusiasts, the international break — that two week period of evil in which star players jet across the globe to participate in matches with high injury risk and of little interest to their club-level fans — isn’t something to be anticipated or enjoyed. Injury risk and fatigue aside, the international break is simply a desert in an oasis of club football. We all like the World Cup but we loathe the process that actually gets us there.

This particular international break seems more intolerable than most: with few countries left to qualify for the World Cup, it occupies a space in FIFA's calendar that mostly needs to be filled in at the last moment. It's kept open in a nation's datebook should disaster strike, but in the event that its qualification is done and dusted, "meaningless" friendlies inevitably creep in.

It’s unimaginable to anyone reading this that there are people in the world who don’t spend every waking hour thinking about, reading about, or watching football, but there are huge segments of the population for whom the World Cup is the only football they watch with any sense of commitment. Some get caught up in the more social aspect of it — read: they like to sit on patios and drink beer — while others came to be football fans because international matches were the only ones televised in their area.

For whatever reason, club football either held little interest or was challenging to access, and these people remain exclusive diehard international fans. The international break affords them one of the few opportunities they have to watch their team outside of a tournament; in the case of friendlies not played on home soil, it also gives international fans a chance to experience those teams in person.

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My first football memory is of Roberto Baggio launching the last penalty of the 1994 World Cup final up and over the net, resulting in Brazil’s unprecedented fourth world title. I remember precious little about that World Cup beyond knowing it was the first we consciously watched as a family, and that for my father, an ardent Brazil supporter, the team he loved beating the team he loathed could not have been a more satisfying result. Sergio Ramos may be Baggio’s modern counterpart as the go-to reference when someone stratospherically misses a penalty, but in our household Baggio will always be the king.

My dad loves Brazil. I don’t know when it started or why — although I imagine Pele had something to do with it, and Brazil’s general success on the world stage probably helped too — but to an outsider it might seem like an odd choice for a Canadian man with parents of Polish and German extraction to cheer for a nation thousands of miles removed from anything to do with him.

To be an international football fan in Canada is to have the option — really, the necessity — to not cheer for your home country if you have any serious interest in the global game. In Canada, you don’t cheer for Canada, at least not exclusively and not when it comes to the men’s senior team. We qualified for the World Cup once in 1986 and haven’t been back since. Diehard enthusiasts might spend time lamenting the failures of the sport’s national governing body or our lack of structures to develop top-tier talent, but they still make the trek to watch early stage qualifiers against nations fielding few professional players before Canada invariably gets knocked out after a poor result somewhere in Central America. We’d be upset about it if we weren’t all primarily cheering for another country in the first place.

We occupy a fan space that if not unique in the world is at least relatively uncommon: we have no nation to root for yet have dozens of options at our disposal owing to the sheer expanse of cultures existing in this country due to immigration. Any nation participating in the World Cup can be adopted as your own. Round up ten of your Canadian friends and they could be cheering for ten different nations. We're in a position where our media can identify twenty-two different places in Toronto to watch a match exclusively with your adopted compatriots. Our diversity provides a set of options few countries can rival, and Canada's lack of presence means not having to make any hard choices as a fan.

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Brazil takes on Chile in a "meaningless" friendly on Tuesday in Toronto and I'm taking my dad. In the past few years my father has gamely suffered through some truly terrible club football with me at the hands of Toronto FC, and my sister and I are making inroads into turning him into a casual Liverpool fan, but at this stage it's safe to say he's still an international football man. The match won't feature players like Dunga or the real Ronaldo, but he's pretty excited to see Hulk. It may not be a competitive match, but it's likely the only opportunity my dad will ever have to see Brazil play in person and that's pretty neat.

For my part, I'm excited to welcome back Lucas to the Rogers Centre, and it will be neat to see current and former Bayern Munich men Dante and Luis Gustavo in person as well. As a supporter of the German national team — even within our own family we don't all support the same country — I have no real loyalties in this match, but it's a moment that represents my own football fandom coming full circle. Like my dad, I largely used to tune in only for the World Cup, and it was only after the last tournament that my need for more football kicked in and caused me to start watching at club level. Attending a match simply to see members of your club play with their national team has a certain symmetry to it.

For fans who don't have the good fortune to live anywhere near the clubs or countries they support, these international breaks are as good as it might get. Injuries, fatigue, and abject boredom are perfectly legitimate reasons to not enjoy the two weeks off from club football, but like "meaningless" club friendlies that are a part of international PR tours, there's an opportunity for fan engagement that is anything but meaningless. I keep hearing that football without fans is nothing, and even if friendlies are functionally unnecessary, they can still serve a large purpose in bringing fans closer to the game. Who knows, those fans might even go on to follow their favourite national team players at club level.

The international break can actually be pretty okay. These may be silver linings, but they're silver linings that are definitely making it a heck of a lot easier to endure the wait until derby day.

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