Football is a sport and, for many people, sport is all about winning and losing. For all the talk of it being the taking part that counts, the competitive element is one of the defining characteristics of sport. Given that, what is the point of friendly games, where the result is entirely meaningless?
In this article, we will consider what friendlies are, who they are played between and when they are contested. We shall also consider the different types of friendly games we might see and, ultimately, we’ll ask whether or not they have any real value and if anyone really cares about them.
What Is a Friendly in Football?
In the earliest days of football, in the decades prior to the founding of the Football League, the sport was less structured, with teams often just playing each other as and when they could on a fairly ad hoc basis. With the difficulties of travel back in the mid and late 19th century, plus the lower standard of facilities (there was no advanced drainage or undersoil heating back then!), it meant that teams often found it hard to regularly undertake fixtures.
These early games were, for all intents and purposes, friendlies, though as they were more common they were often less friendly than the modern equivalent. Nonetheless, they were largely one-off games simply organised between clubs but this meant that teams would often be scrabbling around trying to find opponents to play.
The founding of the Football League in 1888 largely fixed that, bringing a far more ordered structure to the fixture list. Alongside the FA Cup and subsequently the League Cup and European competitions, clubs had a regular stream of matches that all counted towards something.
In simple terms, we can view a friendly as something that lies beyond the defined fixtures of these leagues and cups. The majority of a side’s games are played in a league format, with additional cup fixtures. There is a prize at stake, both in terms of prestige and glory, and often financially too. These competitions see sides play a series of fixtures in order to determine a winner.
In contrast, friendlies are usually one-off games that stand alone in their own right and, perhaps most importantly, there is nothing on the line. This in part explains the term “friendly”, as such fixtures are far less competitive on the pitch than games where there are points, or progression to the next round, not to mention financial incentives, on the line.
When Do Teams Play Friendlies?
In theory, teams can play friendly matches whenever they want but in general they tend to be held during pre-season. Once the season begins the fixture list is typically so congested that the idea of any extra matches would probably have players, physios and managers coming out in hives. That is not to say that friendly clashes are never held during the main body of the season, as we shall see, but it is certainly less common.
The last option, of course, now we have said they mainly take place before the campaign begins, but sometimes might be played during it, is to note that friendlies are also sometimes scheduled for the close season.
Different Types of Friendly Matches
Friendly matches come in many different forms and when they are played, and what their purpose is, are linked and tied into what time of friendly they are. Here we take a look at some of the different “sub-genres” of these non-competitive clashes, though be aware that a game may fall into more than one category.
As said, pre-season is the most common time to play this type of game and before the start of each league campaign most clubs will play between two and six friendly games. There is a huge difference between a player being fit and being 100% match fit. The level of sharpness and athleticism a player can gain from training is limited and they need games under their belts in order to really be at their best.
In truth, even friendly clashes cannot fully provide this but they are the best available bridge between training and the full-throttle, heavy metal football of the Premier League. As well as attempting to bring players to their peak, such games are also used for a range of other reasons. The most important are for the manager to have a look at younger players, bed in new signings, and experiment with tactics.
During the Season
Occasionally clubs or managers may decide to play some intra-season friendly games. These may well form part of a warm-weather training camp in the winter months to give players some nice weather and a bit of sunshine and freshen them up mentally. Such games may be organised if the club has an extended period without a fixture, either due to a winter break, cup scheduling or an international break in which not that many of their players are involved. Sometimes it may be down to a combination of these factors. Games like these may well be played behind closed doors, or in low-key settings, with few or even no fans.
The world of football is on a never-ending road to ever greater commercialisation and the post-season tour is part of that. If there is no major international tournament taking place in the summer, and sometimes even if there is, clubs may decide to go on the road almost as soon as the season ends. Such tours are a relatively recent idea and are played exclusively to make money.
Clubs may disagree with that and say they are to give fans around the world a chance to see their heroes. However, we doubt there are too many altruistic intentions at play. Whilst these tours make money directly through ticket sales, TV rights and even appearance fees, they also do so indirectly by growing a club’s worldwide fanbase.
Very occasionally a club may schedule an ad hoc friendly purely to help a player or players in their return to full fitness. Manchester United did this in 2021 for Marcus Rashford, for example. By their nature these will tend to be during the season and will almost always be behind closed doors, meaning there will be no fans in attendance. Such friendlies are usually played at a training ground and may take place during an international break or another gap in the fixtures. That said, they may also take place within the main body of matches with the team made up of youth or fringe players.
Testimonial matches are a type of friendly that many fans will be familiar with. They are used to honour and reward players for their service to a club. Some clubs may have fixed requirements in place that govern how and when a testimonial is granted. Typically, this means a player will be granted a testimonial when they have played for the club for 10 years. However, this varies and a team may decide to give a player a testimonial at any time.
When there was less money in the game these matches were used to give players coming towards the end of their career a financial boost, as they would keep the revenue generated from ticket sales. In modern times, players usually donate at least some, and often all, of this to charity. In 2016, Wayne Rooney’s testimonial raised well over £1m for charity.
Rooney’s clash saw his then-team Man United play his boyhood club Everton in front of around 60,000 people at Old Trafford, and it is common for the opponent in a testimonial to have some sort of link to the player, the club or the charity they are supporting. Such games sometimes also see retired players feature, or footballers not currently signed to the club in question.
Obviously many modern testimonials can also be seen as charity friendlies but there are also games organised solely to raise funds for a certain cause. Created in 2006 by Robbie Williams, Soccer Aid is an example of this and has seen some huge stars of football and the entertainment world feature. Not all charity friendlies are such high-profile affairs though and may be organised by a current or retired player simply to bring attention, and money, to a cause they care about.
What About International Friendlies?
Another obvious type of friendly is played not by clubs but by countries. A team like England has traditionally had a number of major commitments, chiefly the World Cup and the European Championships (Euros). Qualifying for these tournaments provides several fixtures that go some way to filling the two-year gap between major tournaments but there has still been a lot of room for friendlies.
The most important international friendlies are very similar to a club’s pre-season games and take place in the build-up to the finals of one of the two major tournaments mentioned above. Teams may well try and face opponents who play a similar style of football to those they face in the opening group phase. Such matches are again used to hone fitness, try out new tactics or refine existing ones, settle any final disputed places on the team and get players accustomed to the sort of football they may come against.
Aside from friendlies such as these, there have traditionally been slots set aside in the calendar by FIFA for friendly matches. These were used to give managers more time with their players away from the competitive action of qualifying, give them a chance to try out new tactics or formations and allow more fans to see their national team in action.
However, in 2018, UEFA created the Nations League and this largely replaced friendly internationals for nations in UEFA, aside from those used as pre-tournament preparation. The Nations League is not fully competitive in the same way as the Euros or World Cup but games within it are not classed as friendlies either.
The Nations League lies between a friendly and a fully competitive clash and gives managers time to try out new ideas and work on coaching. Different managers and nations may view it differently at different times because it can offer some smaller sides a good chance of qualifying for a major tournament if they miss out.
In general though, the aim of the Nations League was to make “friendlies” more competitive and see teams of broadly equal quality play each other more often. It was believed this more intense, competitive action would be a more commercial product, better for fans and provide players with a more realistic test. It had its doubters initially but, by and large, the Nations League has been a success thus far.
How Are Friendlies Organised?
Whilst leagues, cups and tournaments have a set structure and official procedures that are followed, with draws, qualification rounds, relegation and promotion, and so on, friendly fixtures are totally different. They are simply agreed between clubs as and when they see fit, although there are certain circumstances that can lead to friendly games too.
Sometimes when a club agrees a transfer with a larger side they may request that they agree to a friendly as part of the deal. This can bring significant funds into a lower league club and really sweeten the deal, whilst at the same time costing the buying club nothing financially. Friendlies can be used in other similar ways as part of various deals between clubs, or even brokered by parties with some interest in both sides.
Generally though friendlies are simply chosen according to convenience and what the manager is looking to achieve. Often clubs, especially smaller ones, will play friendly games against relatively local sides to limit travel, whilst it is also common for a side to gradually increase the level of the opponent as the start of the season draws nearer. This privilege is generally reserved for sides from the top tier who may begin with a friendly against a team from League 1 before playing against a Championship side and then maybe another Premier League side or a team from La Liga or another top league.
In recent years clubs, especially those from the top half of the Premier League, are increasingly playing in mini-pre-season tournaments, often called the “Insert-sponsor-name-here” Cup. For example, in 2022 Arsenal featured in both the Emirates Cup and the less-simply named Florida Cup Series: Clash of Nations.
These vary in format but are essentially glorified friendlies, often taking the format of four teams who play in semi-finals and then either a final or a third-place play-off. These may be primarily organised by one of the clubs who acts as hosts, or they may be held at a third-party venue with invites offered by the sponsors who are trying to generate as much publicity for their brand as possible.
What Is the Point of a Friendly?
We have touched upon a few of the reasons why clubs and national sides play friendly games and the number one reason is undoubtedly to try and prepare themselves for more serious upcoming games. Such friendly matches usually form a key part of a squad’s pre-season preparations and aim to improve the fitness of the players without any major risk of injury.
There are also almost always commercial reasons for hosting friendly games, both at club and international levels. Increasing global awareness of the club and attracting new fans are what the money-men are seeking when they arrange what seems like a strange friendly at a strange time in a strange place.
There may be, deep within this, some hint of a true desire to let the team’s global fans see their heroes in the flesh and to increase participation in the sport, but you can bet that is never the main aim. Charity testimonial games and outright fundraisers do generally have altruistic motives though and are, as we have seen, another reason why certain friendlies are played.
Last of all, we have friendlies that might take place during the season and are mostly designed to maintain or improve the fitness of squad members. Such games are more likely to take place without the presence of fans. These clashes might be arranged in order to keep the whole squad fit if there is an extended period without matches, or alternatively, they may be solely scheduled to give minutes to a player or players coming back from injury.
Do People Care About the Results?
In general, most of the time, many people see a friendly match for what it is – a non-competitive clash where, by definition, the result is not particularly important. That said, should your side lose 4-0 to a big rival in their final pre-season friendly, even the most level-headed of supporters might start to get just a little bit concerned.
Even in such an extreme scenario though, it pays not to read too much into the results from friendly games. Managers may be trying new players, formations or tactics, whilst the footballers themselves may not yet be quite up to full fitness, or may have been taking it easier than their opponents due to a different approach to fitness. Moreover, a friendly will never be the same as a real clash and so by and large those within the game do not get too concerned about the results, as long as they see the improvements in fitness and tactical understanding they were hoping for.
Despite this, fans can and do get very het up by the outcome of friendly clashes, especially if they come alongside a lack of activity in the transfer market, or even a perceived lack of signings. On the other side of the same coin, if a young striker scores a few goals in pre-season many fans will believe they are the next Alan Shearer/Michael Owen/Wayne Rooney/Harry Kane (delete according to your age!). Equally, if a side wins a few games by big scorelines, some supporters may start to believe that “it’s gonna be our year” when the reality is that the season hasn’t even begun yet! Either way, good or bad, we would advise that whatever happens in friendlies is taken with a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your point of view) pinch of salt.
Do Other Sports Play Friendlies?
Football is far from the only sport that plays friendlies and indeed in virtually all sports you may come across similar matches or events. In team sports, they often take the same sort of structure as in football, whilst in individual sports such as tennis or snooker they may be classed as exhibition games, though this term can also be used in team sports too.
The usage and nature of friendlies can vary between sports but by and large they are played for the same reasons and with the same not-quite-full intensity. One thing that is the same in most sports is that the rules used in such exhibition contests can be quite flexible. When it comes to football this usually means that restrictions are substitutions may be relaxed, meaning the manager can sometimes make as many as they want, or even that there will be a pre-arranged full change of the XI at half-time.