Once upon a time, the greatest accolade that could be bestowed upon a football player was to play for his country. Now, it’s all about fast cars, zeros on a pay check and how many times you can be spotted by the press whilst on your end-of-season trip to your eighth holiday mansion.
The battle between ‘Club vs. Country’ grows and grows as every season passes. What many see as ‘pointless friendlies’ throughout the season are described by former England manager Fabio Capello as ‘essential to test new talent’. In some respects, the international friendlies are used to discover fresh faces for a future tournament, yet this rarely happens, seeing as the ‘golden era’ of international footballers are allowed to stay in the team until retirement.
Back in 2010, after the World Cup, Capello told the press that David Beckham would not play for the national team again, citing that he believes ‘…we need new players for the future‘. This was seen as a landmark step towards ushering in a new era within English international football, but is yet to be seen.
Although the form of the likes of Phil Jones, Kyle Walker, Jack Rodwell, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Matt Jarvis have warranted call-ups to the squad, the consistent presence of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick and Peter Crouch could be seen as a hindrance towards this ‘new’ youthful approach England were aiming for.
In 1966, the England side that played in the World Cup Final had two players over the age of 30, whilst five were 25 or under. In comparison, the last major game the English national team played, against Germany in the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, featured four players over 30, and just three were 25 or under. It may not look like a big difference, but there’s an issue arising with older, experienced players not making way to give younger players a chance on the international scene.
Of the 22 players who were included in the 1966 England squad, the average age was 26.5, and seven players had ten caps or fewer. In 2010, the 23 men that made up the World Cup squad had an average age of 28.4, whilst five had less than ten caps. Captain of the 1966 World Cup winning side was a 25 year-old Bobby Moore, whilst the stand-out candidate for the vacant captaincy role currently is 31 year-old Steven Gerrard. These statistics may look very similar, yet they show a gulf of difference between how international football, certainly in England, has evolved.
Younger players aren’t given a chance to shine and earn a place in the England squad, as experience prevails in the battle for success. This has always been the case, but managers like Sir Alf Ramsey, and Sir Bobby Robson managed to find a balance between getting the most out of young players, whilst feeding them through into the team alongside the experience and knowledge of those players who regularly play in the international side. This formula gave great results, and allowed for there to be a kaizen approach to the national side – always striving for continual improvement.
These chances to play for the national side don’t come along very often, and the way the set-up in England has been created doesn’t give players the opportunity to strive for that national place. Nowadays, players come through the academy and work their way up the ranks purely for higher wages, or a nicer WAG. Gone are the days of playing out of your skin in order to impress the national boss.
It doesn’t just seem to be England, either. Take the 2012 African Cup of Nations, for example. Senegal, once the 24th best team in the world, lost every single one of their games, and failed to qualify from the group stages. This is after the 2010 debacle of not qualifying for the tournament at all, and the 2008 situation in which they again didn’t qualify from the group stages. Despite having some of the most in-form players in the world in their squad, like Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cisse, Moussa Sow and Souleymane Diawara, big-money moves have scuppered any concentration of playing well for their country.
However, on the contrary, take Zambia. They’ve reached the final of the Cup of Nations, with a squad comprised of a mixture of aged experience, and youthful hunger. Just two players in the squad play in Europe, and the rest are those who ply their trade in South Africa, China, DR Congo and in their home nation. For these players, the ultimate goal is to pull on the orange shirt of their country, and play the best they’ve ever played. It’s a game of honour for the Zambians, and this is shown in their recent history within previous tournaments (reached the quarter finals of the ACN in 2010), and the pride they have in their country at the final whistle.
Another example of this mentality is that of Wales. Under Gary Speed’s leadership of the national team, the Welsh climbed from 117th in the FIFA World Rankings to 45th – in just four months. Appointing a then-20-year-old Aaron Ramsey as captain, and bringing pace, hunger, desire and a youthful presence to the squad, whilst giving those young, gifted players the international experience they craved, proved to be a recipe for success for Speed. The final squad named by Speed in November 2011 comprised 26 players, with an average age of just 25. The oldest player included was Craig Bellamy, at 32 years of age. This quick change in mentality for the Welsh gave purpose to the national side, and made those players who deemed club life to be more important than playing for their country to question their decisions.
International football has to change to give these young players an opportunity, whether that be through friendlies, more international tournaments, or quotas on squad inclusions. The Premier League’s ruling of eight home-grown players within each team’s 25-man squad has begun to display the talent available within England and the whole of the United Kingdom. Interrupting the club football season for international games is now seen as a negative thing, with fans dubbing it ‘pointless‘ and ‘boring‘ – two words that never used to be uttered about the national team playing.
Whomever the new national boss of England may be has a rather large job on his hands. Success is expected when England play, and therefore that expectation will have to be met to be deemed successful. If Harry Redknapp is given the job, his youth policy at Tottenham will have a great effect on the international stage – bringing through youth players, giving them a chance to gain the relevant experience, whilst ensuring those who have encountered similar situations are there to help nurture the youth within the team. That’s why Spurs are still in the title race, and have the best chance in years to make a big push to the summit of the Premier League table.
The reliance upon the old guard within international football is having an adverse effect upon the game as a whole. The fewer chances for a player to play for his country will lead to more chances for him to cash in upon domestic success. Something needs to be done to turn international football back into the jewel in the crown of the Beautiful Game. But until then, the battle between ‘Club vs. Country’ will continue to live strong.