Sports

Storylines to watch during football’s international break


The 2022 World Cup is now in the rear-view mirror, with national teams using this week’s international fixtures to focus on the challenges ahead, including continental qualifiers and the long build-up to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

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For some, it is a time of change or bouncing back, while players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane will be chasing records over the coming days. So with club football taking a pause for the international teams to press the post-World Cup reset button, there are plenty of storylines to watch for this week.

Ronaldo to break appearance record

Ronaldo will become the most capped men’s player in international football if he appears in either of Portugal‘s Euro 2024 qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The 38-year-old moved level with Kuwait’s Bader Al-Mutawa on 196 international appearances when he played in Portugal’s World Cup quarterfinal defeat against Morocco in Qatar.

There had been doubt over Ronaldo’s future with Portugal following the departure of coach Fernando Santos after the World Cup and the player’s move to Saudi Arabia with Al Nassr. However, new coach Roberto Martinez ended the speculation by naming Ronaldo in his squad for the forthcoming qualifiers. “I do not look at age,” he said. “Ronaldo is very important for the team.”

Ronaldo already holds the men’s world record for most international goals with 118, and two appearances this week will put him on course to break the 200-game mark in the June qualifiers against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iceland.

Kane set to eclipse Rooney

Kane moved level with Wayne Rooney as England‘s all-time record goal scorer by netting his 53rd international goal from the penalty spot during the World Cup quarterfinal exit against France.

Had the Tottenham Hotspur forward scored a second penalty in that game rather than send it over the crossbar, the England goals record would already by the 29-year-old’s outright. Now Kane has games against Italy and Ukraine this week, two good opportunities to move clear of Rooney and become England’s undisputed top scorer.

Gareth Southgate’s team face Italy in Naples in their opening Euro 2024 qualifier on Thursday, aiming to avenge their defeat against Roberto Mancini’s side in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, before hosting Ukraine in London three days later.

All eyes on Reyna as USMNT start new era

Giovanni Reyna‘s limited contribution to the United States’ run to the World Cup round of 16 was an ongoing subject of debate during the tournament, but the full extent of his controversial omission from Gregg Berhalter’s starting XI only became clear in the weeks that followed, with a feud between coach Berhalter and Reyna’s parents overshadowing the Borussia Dortmund player’s time in camp.

Reyna’s attitude was questioned during the tournament, and Christian Pulisic told ESPN that the subsequent controversy between the Reynas, Berhalter and the U.S. Soccer Federation has been “childish.”

With Berhalter no longer in charge (although he remains a candidate for the vacant manager’s position) and interim coach Anthony Hudson describing Reyna as a “good guy” after naming him in his squad for the CONCACAF Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador, all eyes with be on the 20-year-old this week.

This week will be the start of the USMNT’s preparations for 2026, so it will be crucial for Reyna to show that he is fully committed and back in the fold.

More than 1 million want to see Argentina homecoming

When tickets went on sale for Argentina’s friendly against Panama in Buenos Aires, more than 1.5m fans were in an online queue to buy tickets for the game at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental. The stadium, which staged the 1978 World Cup final between Argentina and Netherlands, holds an impressive 83,000 fans, but is clearly nowhere near big enough to satisfy the demand to see Lionel Messi and his teammates play for the first time since winning the World Cup in Qatar in December.

When the Argentina squad returned from Qatar, an estimated 4m people lined the streets of Buenos Aires to welcome Lionel Scaloni’s team home. Although the numbers will be smaller against Panama, the scenes are likely to be just as passionate and colourful.

Germany start Das Reboot Mk II after World Cup failure

Germany coach Hansi Flick said that the four-time world champions would “head into a new direction, and very soon” after the team’s second successive World Cup group-stage elimination in Qatar. The former Bayern Munich coach has been true to his word.

Bayern Munich’s Leroy Sane leads the list of big names omitted by Flick from the squad for the friendlies against Peru and Belgium. Veterans Antonio Rudiger, Ilkay Gundogan, Niklas Sule, Marco Reus and Thomas Muller were also left out.

Flick has opted to turn to Germany’s emerging talent by handing five players their first call-ups. Kevin Schade (Brentford), Felix Nmecha (VfL Wolfsburg), Mergim Berisha (FC Augsburg), Josha Vagnoman (VfB Stuttgart) and Marius Wolf (Borussia Dortmund) have all been selected for the first time.

With Germany hosting Euro 2024 in little more than a year’s time, the pressure is on Flick to make the team competitive enough to win the tournament, so performances this week will be heavily scrutinised.

What next for Russia?

Russia’s sporting exile since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has become an increasing topic of debate within the highest echelons of sport, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) preparing to allow Russian athletes to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Russian football teams are suspended from all UEFA competitions, while they have been suspended from FIFA competitions until further notice.

Despite the suspensions, Russia remain free to play friendly games and they are due to play against Iran in Tehran on Wednesday before facing Iraq in St Petersburg on Monday.

With the Football Union of Russia considering a switch from UEFA to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) due to the perception of less hostility toward Russia in Asia, the games against Iran and Iraq may be a significant pointer as to what happens in the weeks and months ahead.

New look for France

France are having to rebuild under Didier Deschamps following the retirements of 2018 World Cup winners Hugo Lloris and Raphael Varane since the defeat against Argentina in the final in Qatar.

Lens goalkeeper Brice Samba and Chelsea defender Wesley Fofana were called up for the first time for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, although Fofana had to be withdrawn because of a hamstring injury and will be replace by Jean-Clair Todibo of Nice, with joining his brother Marcus in the squad. Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud continue as Deschamps’ first choice forwards, however, with the coach overlooking Karim Benzema following strong personal criticism from the Real Madrid forward.

New start for new coaches

The World Cup signalled the end of the road for many international coaches and the start of a new era under their successors.

This week will see Fernando Santos (Poland), Roberto Martinez (Portugal), Ronald Koeman (Netherlands), Domenico Tedesco (Belgium) and Luis de la Fuente (Spain) all take charge of the first match in their new jobs. Anthony Hudson (U.S.) and Ramon Menezes (Brazil) will take charge on an interim basis following the respective departures of Gregg Berhalter and Tite.



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