The Last Word: Club is essential but country is expendable
International rescue is needed as England players continue to walk away
Sunday 29 May 2011
Now that match of piffling significance is out of the way, we sport-lovers can concentrate on an encounter that truly matters. Who needs Barcelona versus Manchester United when there is England vs Switzerland to feast upon?
The answer is everyone but the saddest of patriots. In six days, Wembley will host its second Saturday night extravaganza when Fabio Capello's brave boys take another step on the road to Euro 2012. Exceptthis time around the hype will send the mercury straight through the floorboards.
Perhaps it isn't a fair comparison. The Champions' League final against just another qualifier. But if anyone out there still fails to recognise football's great contrast they must either be in the FA or denial. The club game's curve stretches ever upwards while that of internationalfootball points squarely to the dungeons. And, of course, this disparityin the fortunes is linked. One profits at the other's expense.
Naturally the divide is emphasised in England. The Premier League explosion has dovetailed nicely with the diminishing importance of the national team in the public consciousness. The reign of Capello has hardly helped in this regard. The players seem anything but enthused and although a chorus goes up of "hey, they damn well should be", it is surely in a manager's remit to inspire. Instead, England are in this self-perpetuating situation where players are walking away. And no longer just the older players, desperate to eke out a few more years on their fat club salaries.
Ben Foster's decision to make himself "unavailable for selection for an indefinite period" – i.e. to retire from international football – is a telling example. Foster was Capello's back-up goalkeeper and, thus, guaranteed to be included in each and every England squad. But at the age of 28, he sacrifices his international ambitions to give himself the best possible chance of a protracted spell between the sticks at Birmingham. Not Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs. But Birmingham. On their way back to the Championship.
There were mutterings at the time of Foster's announcement of the Capello malaise and maybe in another tenure he would have been less tempted to hang up the gloves that once upon a time were the only gloves that mattered. But there is also a trend here, a trend which role models such as Alan Shearer, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs obviously afforded so much momentum. Once it would have been considered unacceptable, but now putting yourself before your country is almost advisable. It is a dilemma which is starting to dominate the international landscape.
Some might spot the increasing indifference to the Three Lions in David Stockdale's withdrawal from Capello's squad last week because he is getting married on Friday. The 25-year-old, another goalkeeper, has yet to win a full cap and says he was willing to link up after Friday's wedding or even change the date, but Capellotold him not to bother. This revelation was reported as if it somehow underlined Stockdale's desire to play for his country. The point is if he was genuinely desperate to don the jersey he wouldn't have even approached the management with his quandary. There wouldn't have been a quandary.
But then, why should Stockdale be so eager to represent England? He has grown up in an age when the rewards for the Premier league performers are on the upper scale of outrageous. The dream is still the dream, no doubt, but now it's framed in gold. There is enough glory to be reaped in the Champions' League, in images we watched last night. England are almost an afterthought, tagged on to the end of an exhaustive season.
This leads on to Jack Wilshere withdrawing from the European Under-21 Championships. Stuart Pearce effortlessly picked apart Arsenal's explanation that the sports science data suggested he was on the brink of sustaining an injury. "Arsenal haven't left him out in the last six weeks, even though the stats say he is in the red zone," said the Under-21 manager. Pearce was said to be "frustrated" but "exasperated" was probably a more appropriate description. He will understand that the case of Wilshere will further highlight the discrepancybetween club and country. Club is essential, country is expendable.
Is this a bad thing? Not if you have been disgusted by the ever more putrid shenanigans going on in Fifa HQ. The World Cup is the reason for the absurd power games. Without the tournament – and its huge profits – Fifa would be nothing, Sepp Blatter would be nothing. It should be a vehicle for the game's development; instead it is a vehicle for self-development. The world is now beginning to understand this, which makes the case for international football that much more difficult to mount. Where will the defenders of round-ball patriotism be when the circus lands in Qatar in 14 years' time? Hiding behind the settee with the rest of us?
For now we can but sit and bear the mundane nature of international week. England versus Switzerland should be the marquee fixture in the group and certainly it could still prove to be crucial to qualification hopes. Yet as Capello scratches around for a team, and when Wembley from last night is put alongside Wembley next Saturday, the reality will be starkly apparent. Think not what you can do for your country, but what you're country can't do for you.
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