Football: To arrange a friendly at this time leaves Hoddle and his employers at the Football Association open to a charge of loose thinking

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The Independent Online
One of the toasts at a football dinner I used to attend annually honours people present who have turned out in the colours of their country. Envy always came over me. Just once, I would think. Just once.

Deficiency in the limb department precludes the glib assertion that an international cap is something I would have gladly given my right arm for, but when people say this I know exactly what they are going on about. Long before going into the professional game, and learning about its disappointments, playing for Wales was the pinnacle of my ambition.

That thought, and it is pretty threadbare now, springs to mind because of the difficulties Glenn Hoddle has encountered in trying to assemble a team for Saturday's friendly between England and Mexico at Wembley.

As reported by my colleague Glenn Moore on these pages yesterday, of Hoddle's original 25-man squad, five withdrew with injuries and eight others are doubtful. Even allowing for World Cup engagements involving the other home countries, to arrange a friendly at this time, one of intense activity in the Premiership, leaves Hoddle and his employers at the Football Association open to a charge of loose thinking.

Inevitably, it rekindled the old club versus country argument, putting an unnecessary strain on relations between Hoddle and the club managers who feel their players are being denied a rare opportunity for rest and rehabilitation. How the players themselves feel about this is quite a different matter.

There are now all sorts of rules to ensure that countries can send out their strongest team for competitive matches, preventing the sort of ridiculous situation that grew up in 1958 when Juventus were at first reluctant to release the great Welsh forward John Charles for the World Cup finals in Sweden. Charles' comparatively meagre total of 38 caps is explained by the pressure imposed on him. "I always wanted to play for Wales," he told me recently, "but Juventus knew that I was always a target for defenders and didn't want me injured. It caused plenty of arguments between us."

When a victory over Italy in Naples would have qualified Scotland for the 1966 World Cup finals they were denied the services of important players from Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur and went out of the competition. Two of the managers involved, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, were Scots.

The old collision of matches between the four home countries and the League programme once caused the Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson to withdraw Dave Mackay, John White and Bill Brown from the Scotland team to play England at Hampden Park. "I could understand Bill's decision," Mackay said, "but it was very disappointing. Playing for Scotland was very important to us." A big difference now is the proliferation of international fixtures. No sooner have countries finished with one competition than they are into another. Friendly matches may be important to development and collective understanding but they aggravate the suppliers.

Often, they create a dilemma for the players. In some cases, and there is no doubt in my mind about this, they are persuaded to feign injury. When international match fees were rather more important than they are today, clubs bribed their men with compensation.

Not so long ago, just a couple of years in fact, I found myself in the company of two players who had been pulled out of an international match in Eastern Europe which, you can be sure, they would not have visited with any great enthusiasm. Apart from anything else, there would not have been much to unload their loot on. At some stage of proceedings one turned to the other, smiled, raised his glass and said: "Just think, we could have been stuck out there tonight, getting kicked and running our bollocks off. Cheers!'

The remark did not strike me as funny or in any way endearing. The record book I turned to later suggested better values. One of Arsenal's most brilliant players, Alex James, turned out only five times for Scotland. Another of their Scottish heroes, Jimmy Logie, gained just one cap. Just 16 caps for Dixie Dean, who scored 60 goals for Everton in one season.

There are so many international matches now that most of the players you come across in the Premiership seem to have turned out internationally in some form or another. Maybe I am wrong about this, but it does seem that the experience has been cheapened, that it no longer means a great deal unless there is a big prize in the distance. They should count themselves lucky.

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