The Ashes: International sport at it’s best, football – take note.

England take first blood in the 2010 Ashes Series.

Cricket. Even mentioning the word on a football blog seems akin to blasphemy, but hell, this is my blog and I’ll do what I want. And while football is, and always will be, my first and eternal love, I must profess that cricket has something that football can’t quite match. The Ashes. It has been central to my existence for the last few weeks, the ultimate in sporting rivalries, it takes any football rivalry to a whole new level.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good derby match in football. As an Evertonian, Merseyside Derby day is always marked firmly on my calender and approached with equal parts excitement and anxiety. Then there are the other great rivalries – like the recent El Clasico and the Old Firm – as well as games like Arsenal vs. Spurs which is developing a reputation for being one of the best fixtures in the Premier League. But, I’m genuinely sorry to say, none of these can quite compare to the Ashes.

A lot of football fans can’t take to cricket. I know plenty of people who live and breathe football as I do but simply don’t have the patience for cricket. The revolution of the Twenty20 era has allowed them to enjoy some aspects of the game, but most would rather wash their hair than watch a test match. And it is, in some ways, a daunting thing. The match lasts five days, and at the end of it, could still be a draw. But really, that is part of the appeal.

Because The Ashes is not just a battle, as is the Merseyside derby and other football matches. The Ashes is a war. Five test matches, east lasting five days, played out over the course of two months. This is a war of attrition. It is a great campaign. It becomes all consuming, the competition takes place not just on the pitch, but all around the game. For two months, everything that the players do or say is under the microscope. To win the Ashes, you have to live and breathe the battle for two months.

And it evolves too. With a derby match in football, we always say form goes out the window, and it can very often be true. That’s because these matches are one-offs, and occasionally, that will make it great. The teams turn up on the day, they throw everything at each other for a relatively short amount of time, and the victor emerges. They then shuffle off to celebrate or commiserate, and we have a great game to remember.

But the Ashes is a different story altogether. It is not a one off. The first test in Brisbane was drawn, after a spirited fightback from England. That didn’t mean a point a piece. It just meant that there was all the more to play for in the remaining four games. It also meant that the teams had had chance to suss each other out a bit. They had a feel for their opposition, and new tactics, selections and strategies could be engineered specifically for them. It takes strategic warfare in sport to another level.

Of course, some would say this comparison is unfair. After all, the Ashes is an international cricket competition, and that can automatically add some prestige to it. While some of us love our clubs as much as our countries (I’d rather see Everton win the Premier League than England the World Cup, for instance), many fans find their true passion when calling on all of their patriotism to support their country against another. And the rivalry between England and Australia, steeped in history as it is, certainly adds an edge to the series.

But even in international football, nothing can quite touch the Ashes. Sure, we have big international rivalries. England games against Germany and Argentina are always tasty affairs, esepcially when they happen in meaningful competition at a European Championship or World Cup, but they’re still always one off affairs. A small part of a longer campaign. While the battle against this one rivalry is enthralling, it must then be forgotten, the next opponent already in sight.

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World Cups are as close as football comes to the Ashes though. It is a campaign in a similar way to the great cricketing series. A sequence of matches must be won, but the lack of consistent opposition means that the rivalry element isn’t there in the same way. It cultivates an ‘us against the world’ attitude which is great, but it doesn’t facilitate the focused and specific rivalry that makes the Ashes great.

Is this something football should have though? Arguably not. By their very nature the sports are two different beasts, and probably shouldn’t be compared in the way I’ve done here. But the thing is, the Ashes brings an awful lot to cricket as a whole. I’d never really watched cricket at all before my first Ashes series all those years ago. Even now, I don’t follow the county game, and while I’ll always watch England’s tours, I won’t watch any old cricket match like I’d watch any old football match.

It has a certain power. It takes over a nation in some ways, and I can’t help feeling that if football could emulate that – given that it’s base following is already much broader and more passionate than cricket’s – it could produce something truly special. An event that would give meaning to England internationals again – get rid of all those stupid, pointless friendlies that no one cares about. We all moan about them, so let’s do away with them, and come up with something better.

The sad thing is that the perfect solution has already passed England by. The perfect way to bring such a tournament into football (or British football at least), would be to bring back the Home Internationals. It wouldn’t be exactly like the Ashes – five teams, games spread over the course of a year – but it would have that built in rivalry ready made, and played yearly, would soon enthrall the public.

While some say England would triumph too easily for it to be a worthwhile spectacle, I disagree. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all have decent talent at their disposal and the beauty is that they would automatically raise their game to try and topple England. It would create a good healthy competition, it would force the smaller home nations to improve by playing good opposition in competitive action and would mean an end to pointless friendlies.

If each team played off against all of the others twice in the course of a year, and the competition was run in a simple league format, it would be perfect. Eight matches per team would easily fit into FIFA’s international windows and wouldn’t add any fixture congestion to the football calender. It would give us international competition to look forward to each year, and it would create ongoing intrigue in a similar vein to the Ashes.

Unfortunately, England seems to have missed the boat on this one. The Nations Cup is due to kick off next year, a biennial torunament featuring the Home Nations minus England, who claimed that fixture congestion would make it unfeasible. That’s a pallid excuse, and is actually a cover for the simple arrogance of the top level of English football – they didn’t want to give up meaningless (but money-making) friendlies against foreign opposition to play matches full of passion and excitement against less glamorous neighbours. Truly, it’s our loss.

So for now, football fans who crave a bit more rivalry and passion from your international sport than you’re getting, and who look forward to Euro 2012 with little more than a sense of trepidation about what lows Capello will plumb next, I urge you to turn to cricket. Give it a chance, find a friend who knows the rules and watch with them. You’ll pick it up easily, and you’ll soon find yourself immersed in one of sport’s oldest and greatest rivalries.

And the best news, for any of my fellow Englishmen reading this, is that unlike the World Cup or Euro 2012, we actually – whisper it quietly though – have a really good chance of winning the Ashes.

This article was brought to you in association with SoccerPro. And while your burgeoning love of cricket is encouraged, don’t forget that soccer balls and goalkeeper gloves make great Christmas presents!

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