Guide To International Friendlies

The Ultimate Guide To International Friendlies

Last updated on June 26th, 2022

As a football fan, you may wonder why some national teams are playing friendly matches, sometimes maybe even during the middle of the season!

Are these friendlies really important?

Here’s what you need to know:

Why are there international friendlies in football?

The origin of friendlies in football dates back to the time before any official competitions were created. Then, teams took on each other to test their teams’ strengths and develop relations with other teams. 

Over the years, international friendlies have become avenues for teams to try and test their players. These friendlies also serve as preparations for teams going into international tournaments, such as the World Cup or continental competitions.

In addition, international friendlies are held across every level of football, from age grade to senior football. 

The football governing body FIFA sets up a calendar to cater to national teams’ activities over a particular period. This calendar determines when teams can play and the kinds of matches they are to play.

This FIFA calendar dictates the times of the year when teams can play competitive games and the times when they play friendly matches.

Are international friendlies competitive?

International friendlies are usually organised to test new players or create match rhythm within a team due to the short time the players spend together. As a result, friendly matches tend to be played at a slow tempo with hardly anything on the line. 

Other matches are specifically described as “competitive” matches, and friendlies are not. This gives an overall idea of the perception of international friendlies.

Recently, some football federations have come together to reduce the need for what they call “pointless” friendlies by introducing something akin to a competition. 

UEFA introduced its Nations League in 2018, allowing European teams to play each other in a more competitive sense in every FIFA window. This meant that there was much more at stake for the teams, and Portugal won the first edition in 2019. 

The teams’ performance in the Nations League was boosted by the added incentive of favourite spots in the World Cup and Euro qualifying for them.

The Czech Republic and Austria reached the playoffs for the 2022 FIFA World Cup based on their performances in the Nations League

Despite being seen as ‘a series of glorified international friendlies;, the Nations League successfully introduced a competitive nature to the games.

After seeing the model used by UEFA, CONCACAF introduced their own Nations League in 2019, scheduling fixtures for periods reserved for international friendlies in the FIFA Calendar

The U.S. Men’s National Team won the inaugural edition in 2021 after defeating bitter rivals Mexico in the final. Furthermore, the CONCACAF Nations League also serves as a qualifier for the CONCACAF Gold Cup

Since a trophy and qualifications for major tournaments have been attached to the CONCACAF Nations League, these friendlies are taken more seriously, giving them a competitive feel.

Do international friendlies affect FIFA rankings?

According to the FIFA rulebook, “The FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is based on a list of all international “A” matches that FIFA recognises.”

“International “A” matches include matches played as part of:

  • FIFA World Cup
  • FIFA World Cup qualifiers
  • FIFA Confederations Cup
  • Continental final tournaments
  • Continental qualifying competitions
  • International friendlies

Going by this rule, international friendlies can affect the FIFA rankings of teams. However, for an international friendly to have such an effect, it needs to be a Tier 1 or international “A” match. This means that the participating teams must field their first-choice teams for the game. 

For example, Nigeria lost 4-0 to Mexico in 2021 in an international friendly, but the friendly match did not count towards their FIFA ranking.

This was because Nigeria fielded their B-team, many of whom had never even been called up to the regular team.

Do international friendlies count as caps?

Like competitive fixtures, international friendlies count as caps for players. This causes many players to try to perform well in these friendlies because they know that the friendlies go into their records. 

To clarify this, taking a look at the history of international appearances of Lionel Messi where he has played 47 friendly matches for his country, and each of them has counted towards his total of 159 caps.

Despite international friendlies counting as caps, they are not enough to tie down a player to a particular national team. Players can feature for a specific country in friendlies and switch nationalities to play for a different one entirely.

For example, Crystal Palace forward Wilfred Zaha grew up in England and made his international debut for the Three Lions in a 2012 friendly against Sweden.

However, seeing no path for himself in the team after a long wait, the winger switched to his country of birth, Ivory Coast, in 2016. 

He has been featuring for the African country ever since. This proves that international friendlies do not cap-tie footballers as they are not competitive fixtures.

Do international friendlies go to penalties?

Unless previously agreed or stated, international friendlies do not go to penalties. When a friendly match ends in a draw, it usually stays that way, with both teams accepting a share of the spoils from the match. 

Most international friendly matches end after 90 minutes. On special occasions, however, international friendlies may end in penalties. This happens in invitational tournaments and friendly competitions such as China Cup, King’s Cup and Kirin Cup.

Do red cards in international friendlies count?

Red cards are awarded for unsportsmanlike behaviour and are not limited to competitive fixtures only.

According to the FIFA guidelines, “Match suspensions in relation to an expulsion pronounced on a player outside of a competition (separate match[es]) or not served during the competition for which they were intended (elimination or the last match in the competition) are carried over as follows:

Friendly matches: carried over to the representative team’s next friendly match.” 

This implies that when a player receives a red card during an international friendly, they are permitted to play in competitive matches, but not in the next friendly game.

Some examples of players to have received red cards in international friendlies include Luis Suarez (2007), Lionel Messi (2005), Neco Williams (2021) and Raheem Sterling (2014).

However, a red card in an international friendly can be punished severely based on the discretion of the awarding referee.

In addition, the referee’s report may cause a player to receive an all-encompassing ban from FIFA that will prevent him from playing in competitive matches as well.

You can find out more about red cards here.

Do international friendly goals count?

Goals scored by players in international friendlies are perfectly legal since FIFA usually sanctions the friendlies. Therefore, any goal scored by a player in an international friendly automatically goes into such a player’s records, provided that the friendly obeys the framework laid down by FIFA. 

In addition, many players take advantage of friendlies against sometimes weaker opposition to boost their goal scoring numbers in international football. 

For example, Messi has scored 81 international goals in his career, and 34 have been in friendlies. Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 20 of his 115 international goals in friendly matches for Portugal.

This goes to show that goals scored in international friendlies count for the player who scores them and are added to his personal records.

Do international friendlies matter?

Most times, international friendlies are not seen as necessary. Instead, coaches see them as a chance to test their new players and see how they will cope.

France defeated Ivory Coast 2-1 in a friendly match in 2022. France head coach Didier Deschamps handed debuts to Christopher Nkunku, Jonathan Clauss, and William Saliba.

The head coach gave them a chance to make their debuts where the stakes were not high. Unfortunately, this is the reality of how many of these international friendlies are seen. 

Additionally, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez left out all of his senior players from the squad to play their two international friendlies in March 2022. This may be his way of trying to work out which players can be added to the main team from among the fringe players.

Over time, however, a measure of importance has been attached to some international friendly matches by incentivising the matches. In addition, teams now have to compete for spots in tournaments or trophies in some friendlies, thereby considerably raising the stakes. 

Competitions like the UEFA Nations League and the CONCACAF Nations League are a series of friendly matches. However, these friendly matches end up being necessary to the teams as they can influence qualification for the FIFA World Cup, CONCACAF Gold Cup, and European Championships. 

Considering all factors involved, international friendlies do matter as they give coaches and players a chance to prove themselves and serve competitive functions in some cases.

Many may not share this opinion as they see these friendlies as pointless and unnecessary. There have been cases of players complaining about the need for these friendlies, stating that they would instead use that time to rest.

Some players like Toni Kroos has been incredibly vocal about this.

This indicates that some players and their representatives do not see the need for international friendlies.


International friendlies are not a bad idea as they have a lot of advantages. Sometimes, however, they appear to be pointless and unnecessary, especially when players have to travel halfway across the world to participate. 

You can find out more about the differences between club football and international football here.

Despite that, international friendlies are valid meetings between two countries, and they are documented by FIFA and added to the records of participating teams. Goals scored, cards issued, and appearances are all part of regular competitive football and international friendlies. 

To spice up the competitiveness of these friendlies without introducing the actual tension of competition, a number of federations have devised different ideas. The concept of international friendlies is woven into the very fabric of international football.

Before the creation of tournaments from it, as we know them today, all that was played were international friendly matches.

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