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What Is A Friendly In Soccer?

What Is A Friendly In Soccer?

In various countries across the globe, people have been playing different forms of football for centuries. However, it wasn't until the Victorian age that the formalised sport of association football was created by the inaugural English Football Association. In the early days of the sport, friendlies were the most common way for people to enjoy soccer; however, it wasn't long before demand for some kind of organised competition began to grow, leading to the creation of the FA Cup in 1871. Described at the time as "a Challenge Cup... for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete", the FA Cup has been going ever since, making it the oldest football competition in the world.

However, the FA Cup is one of many — throughout the history of soccer, people have felt the need to design different competitions and tournaments in order to give clubs the opportunity to battle it out against each other in competitive situations and ultimately search for supremacy. Nowadays, organised competitive football is the norm. But of course, it's not the only way people enjoy the game, and non-competitive soccer is useful for the highest-level pros as well as the most casual of amateur players. In this article, we'll be looking at this side of the game in detail, explaining the role of non-competitive games — otherwise known as soccer friendlies — within the landscape of the beautiful game.

Arsenal vs Manchester United at the Champions Tour in East Rutherford, New Jersey

What Is A Friendly In Soccer?

In soccer, the term 'friendly' is used to describe a match between two teams that is not part of any formal, organised competition or tournament.

A friendly football match is a non-competitive game, meaning that the result does not have any impact on a league or tournament ranking, and there is no prize money involved for the winner. However, the rules for a friendly match are exactly the same as in competitive football; the only thing that might change is the number of substitutions permitted for each coach.

The reason that these games are called friendlies is because the lack of impact on league standing means that the level of intensity, physicality and tempo in these games is often reduced in comparison with competitive fixtures. Typically, atmospheres for friendly matches won't be the loudest and it's rare to see players diving into big, beefy challenges, getting sent off by the referee or getting into serious conflict with match officials or opposition players.

That being said, friendly soccer games can still be played at a high tempo and can feature great technical quality, even if the results don't officially count towards anything. Ultimately, these games offer an opportunity for players to keep up their fitness levels and show their dedication, work rate and value to the team, while coaches will use soccer friendlies to work out their best line-up and try out new tactics and strategies. This is one of several reasons that soccer friendlies take place.

The Purpose of Soccer Friendlies

Often, friendly soccer matches — which are also sometimes referred to as exhibition matches or exhibition games — will take place outside the structure of a standard soccer season. Regular domestic league seasons (aka the Premier League, Major League Soccer or the J-League) take place at different times in the year due to seasonal differences experienced across the globe; club soccer friendlies will typically take place outside the realms of this regular season.

For example, English clubs will usually use the summer (June-August) as an opportunity to visit foreign countries and play against teams they wouldn't normally face, AFC Wrexham's 2023 US tour being a great example of this.

This sums up one of the key purposes of soccer friendlies: to build up fitness and performance levels for players during the off-season. A large portion of the friendly matches that take place around the world each year are preseason games designed to help players get back to full match sharpness and give coaches the opportunity to integrate new signings into the team and offer playing time to youngsters.

Sometimes, exhibition matches will be structured into pre-season friendly tournaments such as the Emirates Cup, but usually these will just be one-off matches.

Friendlies can also take place during mid-season breaks, in order to keep players ticking over if they play in a division that takes a pause midway through the season (such as the Ukrainian Premier League). And it's not just domestic clubs that regularly play friendlies. In fact, you could argue that at international level they're far more important...

Club Friendlies vs International Friendlies

While club friendlies are generally played during the break between domestic league campaigns, soccer players who represent their countries will often end up playing multiple friendly matches during the course of a season. At various points during a calendar year, top leagues across the world will undergo mid-season international breaks that allow players the chance to jet off abroad and represent their respective countries in international fixtures.

Sometimes, these will be qualifying matches, but on other occasions those players will be chosen to compete in international friendly soccer matches.

International friendlies play an important role when it comes to helping international managers like Gareth Southgate, Didier Deschamps or Lionel Scaloni pick which players they want to select for national duty. At any given time, there will always be a huge international tournament on the horizon for these coaches — whether it's the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Championship or the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) — and every international friendly football match offers them the chance to prepare for it.

Whether it's trying out new tactics and formations, giving young players valuable experience, tweaking their plans for the tournament Starting XI or simply providing extra time for socialising and bonding between players, these games are essential for the smooth running of international soccer teams.

Friendlies also offer fans valuable opportunities to see their heroes in action; getting tickets or being able to travel to a tournament or even an international qualifying match can be extremely difficult, but friendly games afford supporters a rare chance to get behind their national team and see an international match play out live in the flesh — the fact that it's an exhibition game may not matter at all.

Competitive Games: What Are The Different Types of Competitive Soccer Match?

While we've sketched out the different types of friendly matches played by soccer teams across the world, we haven't yet dived into the detail when it comes to the alternative: competitive football.

Competitive soccer matches are the reason we all follow the beautiful game; supporters are there for all the drama and passion provided by Champions League finals, World Cup clashes, and huge battles at the top of the Premier League or La Liga. Ultimately, friendlies could never count for anything in comparison, and they don't claim to. But what are the different types of competitive soccer match?

League Fixture

This is the bread and butter for soccer supporters all over the world. If you're invested in football, the likelihood is you have a team that you follow every week, whether it's a local club that your family has been supporting for generations, or a side in a completely different part of the world that you follow via TV or social media. For the majority of a calendar year, association football clubs will compete in domestic league competitions organised by their national football association. Whether it's the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, MLS or the Saudi Pro League, the aim is simple: rack up points by beating the other teams in your division (or getting draws) in league games.

League Play-off Fixture

Certain leagues also feature a mini play-off competition at the end of the season; for example, at the end of the EFL Championship season, the teams who finish between 3rd and 6th enter a play-off format to decide who gets promoted to the Premier League. This is outside the realm of the regular league season, but it is still a competitive format with huge stakes.

Domestic Cup Fixture

Alongside the running of the domestic league season, most countries will have at least one domestic cup competition that will see teams from across the football pyramid competing against each other in a knockout format. In England and Wales, the primary domestic cup competition is the FA Cup.

Continental Cup Fixture

The best-performing clubs in each country also get the chance to play in continental cup competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League, the Europa Conference League or the Copa Libertadores. These competitions will be reserved for the most successful teams in each continent.

Inter-Continental Cup Fixture

Each season, the best clubs from each continent — as decided by their respective continental cup competitions — will also take part in a special inter-continental tournament to crown a world champion. This format is called the Club World Cup.

International Qualifying Fixture

As we previously discussed, international teams regularly play friendlies in the run-up to a big tournament. But the most important matches during these periods are the international qualifying games they play; these matches will see national teams pitted against each other in continent-based groups, with the highest-placed teams in each group ultimately qualifying for the upcoming tournament.

International Tournament Fixture

After achieving qualification, national teams then battle it out in arguably the most illustrious competition in all of world football: the World Cup. Representing your country at this level is a great honour, and it will be viewed by many players as the highlight of their career.

If you'd like to find out more about the importance of this competition to world football, check out our in-depth guide to the World Cup Trophy, the greatest prize in soccer.