World Cup: Richard Hercock - Wishing the Dutch and Italians were at Russia 2018

Wish you were here: Italy's Fabio Grosso kisses the World Cup trophy after scoring the decisive penalty against France in 2006.
Wish you were here: Italy's Fabio Grosso kisses the World Cup trophy after scoring the decisive penalty against France in 2006.
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Absence makes the heart grow fonder and that is certainly the case with Italy and the Netherlands at the World Cup.

Both of these European heavyweights failed to qualify from the group stages, meaning the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Arjen Robben are sitting on a beach somewhere, rather than gracing the greatest sporting event in the world.

The folly of that was brought home to me at the opening game, when Saudi Arabia were thrashed 5-0 by hosts Russia. The Saudis were terrible and, along with Panama, you are left wondering how they deserved a place in the finals, while the likes of Italy and Holland are missing.

Obviously, each continent needs representing, but the tournament does not feel the same without the leading men. A bit like turning up to the theatre to watch an Hollywood A lister only to find a stand-in appearing.

Also missing this summer are USA, Copa American champions Chile, Cameroon – present in seven of the last nine tournaments – and regulars Ivory Coast.

It is not the first time a leading nation has failed to reach the World Cup finals, of course. England were absent when USA hosted the tournament in 1994.

At present, 32 teams qualify for the finals, but this is the last year for that format.

In Qatar in 2022, there will be a whopping 48 teams, meaning it will should, in theory, be easier for Europe’s elite to reach the finals.

So maybe we need to get rid of the qualifying group games altogether. Why not say all previous winners automatically qualify for the World Cup finals? Although that would not have saved the Dutch, who rather surprisingly have never won football’s greatest prize. Italy, on the other hand, have won it four times, only Brazil boasting a better record.

Who will ever forget the 2006 final, when Zinedine Zidane was sent off for France, and after a 1-1 draw, the Azzurri won the penalty shootout 5-3 thanks to Fabio Grosso’s decisive spot-kick.

At a time when football complains of an ever-expanding calendar, let us get rid of internationals during the regular domestic seasons.

As a football fan, I hate those two-week international breaks anyway.

Instead, it would mean clubs would not have to condense their fixtures into short periods.

Each summer, there could be some sort of tournament – maybe a Home Nations? – when we do not have a Euros or World Cup.

With the prospect of a European league for elite clubs also on the horizon, this would give them more spaces in the calendar.

Personally, apart from the major finals, I have little appetite for international games during the season. Friendlies are glorified training sessions, and some of the qualifying rounds are simply tedious.