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What are International Friendlies

Photo of confetti falling in a soccer stadium. Soccer

Soccer is one of the world’s most popular sports, with nearly 4,000 professional teams representing more than 200 countries. Throughout the season, teams play against each other to move up in the world rankings and qualify for high-stakes tournaments and championships. In the offseason, they often compete in what are known as international friendlies. While these matches are essentially practice games that don’t affect teams’ rankings, they’re still fun and competitive events to which you can buy tickets to cheer on your favorite teams.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about international friendlies. When you understand the importance of these amicable matches, you’ll enjoy them that much more.

What Are International Friendlies?

Photo of the crowd at a soccer match.
Image via Flickr by doggiesrule04

International friendlies, also known as soccer friendlies, are exhibition soccer games that teams from two countries play in preparation for tournaments or the upcoming season. These matches don’t usually affect the teams’ standings in league play. Rather, they allow teams to practice in a game environment.

Teams first started playing international friendlies in the 19th century, before official matches and championships were commonplace. National teams played each other to test their skills and determine which team was strongest. Today, international friendlies are regularly scheduled noncompetitive matches on teams’ calendars. Teams use these games to assess players, try out new plays, and prepare for tournaments.

When Do International Friendlies Take Place?

While international friendlies can take place at any time during the year, most get scheduled shortly before a team or league’s season begins. This is because friendlies primarily serve as preparation for the upcoming season. 

The International Champions Cup, for example, is an exhibition series that takes place at stadiums across the United States during the summer preseason. Eight to 18 European teams that U.S. fans might not normally get to see in person typically participate. Because soccer is a winter sport in Europe, those teams are able to travel to the U.S. for international friendlies during the summer. Each team plays three matches at three stadiums, for a total of 27 games. The team that earns the most points in the series wins the championship and bragging rights for the series.

You might also see friendlies on the calendar before international tournaments, so teams can prepare before competition starts. National teams, for instance, might play a few international friendlies leading up to the Olympics or the World Cup. You might also see international friendlies scheduled during midseason breaks to ensure players don’t lose any fitness. Each soccer league’s governing body, which for international play is FIFA, determines when teams can play friendlies.

Teams typically play four to eight international friendlies in the offseason. They might start with a match against a lower-ranking team, while they’re still building back their confidence and fitness. The team’s last few games might be against similarly skilled competition to truly test their competitiveness right before the season starts.

The Purpose of International Friendlies

While international friendlies are noncompetitive and don’t typically affect a team’s rankings, they still play a valuable role in the players’ development and experience. These matches serve eight main purposes:

1. Improve Player Fitness

A significant reason teams play international friendlies is to increase their players’ fitness before the start of a new season. At the end of each competitive season, most soccer players get a break that lasts weeks to months. While they take steps to train and stay fit during this period, inevitably they might lose some fitness.

For this reason, team managers might organize a handful of international friendlies before the upcoming season to assess fitness levels and help get the team game-ready before matches truly count. There’s nothing quite like 90 minutes of actual game play to determine a player’s readiness for competition.

2. See How Teams Play Together

International friendlies allow coaches to assess how teams play together. This can be important in two scenarios. First, if players have left the team and/or new players have been brought on over the offseason, they need to know how well they get along and how effective they are on the field. Preseason friendlies can help players adjust to their new teammates and learn to work better as a team. 

The other situation is when national teams are preparing for tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup. Throughout the season, players on club team rosters might join their national teams for a few weeks to represent their country in qualifying games for tournaments. The players on these national teams might have never played together. Or, they haven’t played together in months or years since the last time their country qualified for a tournament. Here, teams might organize friendlies against other national teams to help the players adjust to playing together again before the tournament begins.

Each team has different playing styles and tactics. It can take time for teams to learn to play together effectively. International friendlies give them time and opportunity to form a cohesive team and play their best soccer. In doing so, they can also boost player confidence and morale going into the season. A friendly match’s tempo might be slower than normal because players are simply trying to get into a rhythm as a team and don’t want to risk injury.

3. Introduce New Players

Many coaches choose to debut new roster members during international friendlies. This gives rookie players a chance to prove their worth when the stakes are lower. France’s head coach, for instance, debuted three new players in a recent international friendly against Ivory Coast, winning 2 to 1. The players impressed upon their debut, which could improve their chances for a more permanent slot on the roster.

Similarly, in March 2022, the manager of Belgium’s national team didn’t use any of his seasoned players during two international friendlies. Presumably, he was trying to determine which of the rookie or lower-tier players deserved to move up to the main team. These practices are commonplace in many friendlies.

4. Try New Tactics and Strategies

Because international friendlies are noncompetition, they’re ideal scenarios for coaches to test new patterns and players. If a play doesn’t work out, the team suffers no consequences. Strategies coaching staff might try include:

  • New team formations.
  • New offensive or defensive tactics.
  • Putting players in different positions than normal.
  • Including a new or different player in a play.

If these tactics are successful in friendly competition, teams might incorporate them into their regular plays.

5. Celebrate a Special Occasion

Teams might schedule international friendlies to commemorate an occasion. Examples include:

  • A team or country anniversary.
  • A player’s retirement, giving fans a chance to watch them one last time and cheer them off the field.
  • To introduce new players to fans.

These types of friendlies can be particularly fun and momentous. When looking for international friendlies tickets, consider games that coincide with special occasions.

6. Raise Money

Some teams organize international friendlies to raise money for a good cause or charity. These events often garner a lot of positive media and fan attention. Teams typically donate all money from the event’s ticket sales to the designated cause. If the game draws thousands of fans, the amount of money a team raises for charity can be significant. Take, for example, Soccer Aid, an exhibition game that has raised nearly 50 million dollars to date for UNICEF.

International friendlies for charity might also take the form of testimonial games. Teams organize these events to honor a player nearing retirement or who has spent much of their career on the team. The player then donates all the earnings from the game to their designated charity.

Teams might also host international friendlies to raise funds for their own clubs. An exciting friendly match between team rivals can draw large crowds, helping the team pay for fees and expenses incurred throughout the season. These events can be crucial for smaller teams with lower operating budgets.

7. Select National Rosters

When countries are trying to determine their roster of players for World Cup play, they might organize international friendlies to assess each player’s skill and teamwork. This is because nations can form their World Cup teams using players native to that country, regardless of the league or club they play for during the regular season. During international friendlies, the national team’s coaching staff can watch the players work as a team and handpick their lineups.

8. Promote the Team

Many organizers deliberately schedule international friendlies in certain countries to promote their team to that market. They might also schedule friendlies in cities where they know they have large and passionate fan bases. International friendlies also give players the opportunity to travel to destinations where they might not play during the regular season.

Some international friendlies are organized with team sponsors in mind. For example, you might see two teams with Nike sponsorships playing in a friendly. This is a nod to the sponsor, who can outfit all the players on the field in their gear and get maximum exposure.

Do International Friendlies Count?

While international friendlies are considered noncompetitive games, those given Grade A or Tier 1 status by FIFA do have a small impact on rankings and players’ statistics. Some friendlies are sanctioned by FIFA, and some are not. If the game is not FIFA-sanctioned, its goals don’t count. If it is sanctioned, they do. FIFA keeps a record of appearances, goals, and cards issued at international friendlies.

FIFA does not, however, weight friendlies as heavily as competitive international games. It applies an algorithm to each team’s score and stats from an international friendly, and that figure applies to the team’s place in the world rankings. The algorithm is designed to minimize the importance of the international friendly’s outcome. Still, if a high-ranking team loses to a much lower-ranking team, they might fall in the rankings. Similarly, if a low-ranking team defeats a top team, they can gain quite a few points for that victory.

This, too, is a bit subjective. In 2021, for instance, top-ranked Nigeria lost 4 to 0 to Mexico in an international friendly. Nigeria did not fall in the FIFA rankings, however, because its B team was playing that day. For an international friendly to be considered a Grade A sanctioned event, both teams must put forth their A rosters.

Stats that sometimes matter in an international friendly are player goals and caps. For example, the goals a player scores in a sanctioned international friendly count toward their career records. For this reason, players often make an effort to score during friendlies to boost their personal records. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, scored 20 of the 115 international goals on his record during friendlies. Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi scored 34 of his 81 international goals in friendlies.

A cap is a player’s participation in an international game. So if a player plays part or all of a sanctioned international friendly, they’ll receive a cap on their record. This often encourages players to perform at their best, because they know the game will appear on their record. Take Messi, for instance — he has 159 caps on his record, 47 of which were international friendlies for Argentina.

International Friendly Rules

Photo of game action from an international friendly.
Image via Flickr by tpower1978

Many of the basic rules of international friendlies are the same as those of any other international match. The game also lasts a normal regulation time of 90 minutes.

One aspect that can differ, however, is in the number of substitutions teams get. In regular season play, teams typically get only three substitutions. Because international friendlies are designed to allow teams to try out new players and patterns, they can use many more substitutions. The relaxed substitution rule also allows more players the opportunity to play for their fans and family. During tribute games, it lets the retiring or retired player come in and out of the match as frequently as they need.

Referees are also generally more lenient when it comes to punishing players. They want to keep the game flowing and fun. If they deem unsportsmanlike behavior deserving of a red card, however, they will issue one. The offending player then has to sit out the next friendly match but is allowed to play in the next competitive one. Examples of big-name players who have received red cards during international friendly play include Messi in 2005 and Neco Williams in 2021.

International friendlies usually don’t go into penalties, which occur when a player commits a foul in their penalty box. When this happens, the opposing team’s player can attempt a shot at the goal, with only the goalkeeper defending the ball. If the game ends on a penalty in a tie, it stays that way. The exception to this rule is during special invitational international friendlies, such as the King’s Cup or Kirin Cup.

Competitive International Friendlies

Over the years, several soccer federations have created more competitive international friendlies. In 2018, for example, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) launched its Nations League. While essentially a series of international friendlies, top-performing teams in these matches gained higher qualifying spots in competitive tournaments such as the World Cup. The Nations League incentivized teams to play harder, making the games more exciting. The national teams for Austria and the Czech Republic, for instance, made it to the 2022 FIFA World Cup playoffs thanks to their performance in the Nations League.

Similarly, in 2019, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) established its own Nations League of international friendlies. The United States Men’s National Team bested Mexico in the finals to win the 2021 edition. These games also allow teams to qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where North America’s continental champion gets crowned every two years.

Teams take international friendlies with championships and qualifications on the line more seriously than preseason matches, making them more competitive and fun for fans to watch.

Where to Watch International Friendlies

Many international friendlies, particularly those between high-ranking teams, get aired on TV or online. Each country sells the rights to its team’s game to a particular broadcaster. In the United States, these networks include CBS Sports, FOX Sports, NBC Sports, and Univision. 

You can also watch international friendlies in person. These events take place at venues ranging from small arenas to NFL football stadiums. Depending on the event, you might be able to snag seats to an international friendly for less money than you would pay for a regular-season or tournament ticket. The benefit is you still get to witness high-quality soccer and watch teams or players you might not normally have the opportunity to see live. You can search for and buy international friendly tickets online.

While international friendlies might not affect a team’s standings or results, they’re crucial to the sport. They help teams prepare and train for the upcoming season, celebrate special occasions or worthy causes, and give fans more games to watch. International friendlies are also major sources of national pride, making for great competition, regardless of the purpose.