Football: Case proved for testing the next best

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The Independent Online
WHEN Tottenham Hotspur's chief executive, Terry Venables, finally agreed to release Nick Barmby for next month's World Youth Championship in Australia, his change of heart probably came less as a result of threats from the Football Association than as a response to the death of his great friend Bobby Moore. The connection is more significant than Venables wanted to admit.

Tributes to Moore took many forms, from the simple ones written by the fans and pinned on the gates at Upton Park to the message from the Queen, but the ones which would have impressed Venables the most came pouring in from players all over the world. Football, after all, is the most international sport and Moore's achievement was that his talent was recognised far beyond the East End or even Europe.

Club v Country? Venables said the debate should not continue at this sad time. On the contrary, for many people those tributes must have done a lot to solve what has always been a difficult matter of conscience. How else can a great footballer or a national team be judged if not in competition against contemporaries from the leading football playing countries? There was a time when Moore would have been an automatic choice for any World XI. That, for him, must have been enormous compensation for never having won the championship medal in domestic competition. Even West Ham fans, who often felt that England always had the best out of their international trio, must have reflected warmly in that glory.

During the early part of the debate over the precocious but unfortunate Barmby, a number of Tottenham fans wrote poignant letters to the press. They expressed their unhappiness that having spent money they could ill- afford on season tickets first they had changed fixtures foisted upon them by the Premier League's arrangement with satellite television, and then they were in danger of seeing the most exciting young Tottenham player since Paul Gascoigne being taken off to some obscure youth competition when Spurs were about to face the most important part of their season.

While the complaint about changed fixtures is one with which it is easy to sympathise, the club and country issue is much older and more important to the future of football itself. The point is that Moore would never have held the nation enthralled and brought thousands to grounds throughout the country had club needs regularly overcome national interest.

Barmby is being called up by a junior version of the England team, making the situation the thin end of the wedge. Nevertheless, many a future full international has gained experience at similar events, albeit not usually at quite such an inconvenient time. Graham Taylor, the England manager, added his weight to the pressure put upon the Premier League clubs - all of whom had mouthed their support for him but had often cheated him out of players at senior level. He saw the issue as being a simple matter of clubs continuing to cheat by pulling out players on the pretext of injury, defying the FA altogether and admitting that they set up the new League entirely out of self-interest, or accepting that in the long run football's best interest was served by co-operating with requests for the release of players.

Looking to the FA for guidance these days is generally a lost cause, but this time its firm line demanding the release of players was justified. Not that the underlying problem of their status will go away. The FA continually get its over-priced knickers in a twist because it represents both the England team and the Premier League. On the one hand it has to tell clubs to field their strongest teams and on the other deprive them of some of their best players.

The fans are left to suffer the consequences of clubs selling favourite players and international teams stripping them of others. Hard though it is to side with the FA, which when the controversial dates were agreed failed to dicuss the youth tournament with the clubs, and not relinquishing sympathy for the fans who have suffered plenty already, country before club must prevail.

Moore once said that if for any reason the best players were unable to play for England, there was no satisfaction in being chosen 'because there was no one else'. He wanted to be picked because he was the best, which he undoubtedly was. Barmby and today's generation must also prove themselves against the best.