Falling out of love with international sport

SEPTEMBER 16 ― This weekend sees the conclusion of the European international basketball championships, known as Eurobasket, with the final taking place between Slovenia and Serbia or Russia on Sunday night.

I love basketball. I think it’s a great sport, with its blend of teamwork and individual skill, tactics and spontaneity, all-out speed and careful precision showcasing pretty much everything that’s good about sport and combining to create a hugely enjoyable spectacle.

Indeed, a large portion of my professional life is dedicated to the basketball ― for the last few years I have worked for Euroleague, the top club competition (equivalent of football’s Champions League) which was most recently won in May by Turkish side Fenerbahce in front of 16,000 delirious fans in Istanbul.

The new Euroleague season starts in a month and I am thoroughly looking forward to it, and often cite the structure of the competition ― which is a genuine league of the best 16 teams in the continent ― as an example that football should follow.

So basketball and me, great. We get on very well indeed. But over the last couple of weeks I have found myself desperately struggling to muster any interest in Eurobasket. The whole thing has just passed me by and I haven’t managed to sustain sufficient interest to watch any game in its entirety.

A large part of the problem is that so many star players (33 in total) were missing from the tournament, either because of injury, because their NBA teams didn’t give them permission to play or, in some cases, because they just couldn’t be bothered.

To be honest, I know how they feel. I’ve been noticing for a while that my interest in international sport is dwindling, especially during last summer’s football European Championships which I found excruciatingly boring.

Since then, I’ve only watched international football matches when I’ve had to, and I couldn’t tell you much at all about the state of qualification for next summer’s World Cup Finals except that Brazil are doing well, Argentina are struggling and Spain ― whose games I cover for work ― are starting to re-establish themselves.

I never used to feel so apathetic. When I was growing up, any England game ― even a meaningless friendly ― was a genuine highlight on the calendar, and I’ve probably never been as enthused by any sporting event as I was by the European Championships in 1996, when England reached the semi-finals before losing in a penalty shoot-out against Germany.

Now, I couldn’t even tell you the result of England’s last game, their next opponents or how they’re positioned in the World Cup qualifying groups ― although I think they must be doing OK because I know Gareth Southgate hasn’t been fired yet. Beyond that, I just haven’t been paying any attention.

All of this is partly personal, connected to my general and ever increasing lack of patriotism, which means anything to do with national identity holds little interest for me. I no longer regard myself as English, so sporting events which split groups of players by country are unlikely to captivate me.

But it’s not just that. I still love international cricket, for example, because it’s the very highest standard of the sport, but on the whole I find that international football and basketball are, basically, really bad.

I have no proof for this claim, but I firmly believe that reigning European football champions Portugal would be relegation candidates in the Premier League or La Liga; any of the competing teams in Eurobasket would be among the very worst if they played in the NBA.

Top-level sport is now so sophisticated, in terms of physical and tactical preparation, international teams inevitably fall well behind.

Club sides have dedicated professionals studying game tapes and reams of data so they know exactly how their players and their opponents are performing. Players spend training sessions day after day with each other, gaining a minute understanding of each other’s capabilities. Tactically-minded coaches devise game plans and strategies to maximise their team’s strengths and expose the opponents’ weaknesses.

None of these things are really possible in international sport, because the time spent together is so short and the available personnel is constantly changing. Every football international break is accompanied by a plethora of injuries of dubious severity, and as mentioned earlier the ongoing Eurobasket has been afflicted by mass pull-outs.

Club-level sport is now so demanding and all-consuming ― and, of course, financially rewarding ― it leaves very little time or energy for international competitions, which are increasingly becoming an after-thought or even an irritation to the best players.

Serbia, for example, are without seven of their top performers at Eurobasket (and remember basketball is a five-man sport). How on earth can any coach or group of players hope to achieve a fluid team strategy in such circumstances? Yet Serbia has still managed to reach the semi-final, which says a lot about the overall quality.

So when Eurobasket’s final takes place on Sunday night, I won’t be watching. When England play whoever they’re playing in the next international break, I won’t be watching. International sport just doesn’t do it for me. Am I alone?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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