Unrivaled: Are We Devaluing International Rivalries?

Last Friday, the Netherlands defeated Germany in a six goal thriller. That same evening, Mexico and the United States embarked on the next chapter of their rivalry, with el Tri running rampant against an unremarkable USMNT. While any occasion to see these rivalries is welcome, some criticism arose from the repetitive nature of these matchups. In the last eleven months, the Netherlands and Germany played four times. The United States and Mexico had three such matchups in the past year. For context, the previous four games that the Netherlands and Germany played spanned from 2005 to 2014. In these two matchups, we were able to see the good and the bad about iterative international fixtures. What are the pros and cons of these matchups, and what can be done to find the middle ground? 

The Netherlands celebrate while the Germans regroup. Image: Sportskeeda

The positives of seeing great rivalries on the international stage cannot be understated. Both of these rivalries are high profile in their respective regions; the USMNT and Mexico are perennial leaders of CONCACAF, while the Netherlands and Germany are historically two of the most successful footballing nations. The quality on display in the European fixture did not disappoint. The Netherlands, playing without a true striker, operated both on the counter and in possession with swift and fluid movement. The match was tremendously entertaining, as was the return fixture, when Germany stole the three points with a goal in added time. Meanwhile, in the Americas, the United States rolled out a lineup that included debutant Sergiño Dest, along with a number of USMNT regulars; however, a Mexico side playing without many of their stars was able to pick Gregg Berhalter’s side apart. In a world of capable potential opponents, the loss to Mexico carried extra weight. Fans of the United States have now been treated to two consecutive losses to their southern neighbors in the last three months. 

The larger issue beyond the repeated losses is that with these fixtures repeating so frequently, the spectacle of these rivalries are in danger of weakening. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility states that for every additional “unit” – in this case, these rivalry matches – the relative satisfaction of the consumer, in this case the viewers of these matchups, will decrease. The time between each of these derbies adds value to the spectacle. The World Cup and the European Championships do not simply get played every year: the four-year gap between tournaments makes each iteration more special, more unique. On both a macro and micro scale, we risk decreasing demand for these matchups by simply overplaying them. 

The USA and Mexico rivalry in 2007. Image: Yahoo Sports

The deliberate repetition of rivalry matchups is a worrying trend. For example, the UEFA Nations League, which did provide quality entertainment, did so at the expense of the novelty of truly competitive international soccer. It was an artificial tournament, shoehorned into an already crammed schedule. UEFA’s own website states that the Nations League was created to add “more sporting meaning in national team football,” citing  “associations, coaches, players and supporters [being] increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams.” However, replacing these friendlies with another high-intensity tournament – in addition to the already-present Euro and World Cup qualifiers – certainly served to devalue the spectacle of those aforementioned competitions. 

Similarly, the United States and Mexico are accustomed to meeting in World Cup qualifying, the Hex, or the finals of the Gold Cup. Indeed the two nations are “near certainties” to face off at least twice more before the 2022 World Cup. Watching them play a game with lesser stakes only devalues a rivalry that is a measuring stick for the oft-changing roster and coach of the USMNT. Fans want to be entertained; a matchup against teams that provide more novelty would have been a breath of fresh air.  If Gregg Berhalter wanted to expose the promising American youngsters to top international football, there are a host of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL teams that would have made better opponents than their highest-staked rivals; we saw this on Tuesday night, when the USMNT battled Uruguay to a 1-1 draw.

Christian Pulisic
Pulisic stands frustrated, while Mexico and their fans celebrate. Image: NBC Sports

The Nations League is set to repeat in 2021, and it is likely that we will see another rivalry get repeated in this next iteration. With the popularity of USMNT-Mexico games beneficial for ticket sales, a repeat of this friendly fixture is likely in the near future, in addition to the potential qualifying matchups for the 2022 World Cup. Hopefully, for the benefit of the fans and players alike, a middle ground can be found that will let teams test themselves and entertain fans without oversaturating and thereby devaluing these prominent rivalries. 

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