Is international football a dying entity?

by James Clancy

Wembley AmendedHearing Robbie Keane speak of his passion to represent his country warmed the cockles of my heart this week.

The Tallaght man said the following at Tuesday’s eve of Republic of Ireland -v- England press conference:

I want to play for my country more than anything and it still means as much to me now as when I made my debut at 18. I can never understand why players don’t want to play for their country.

Keane’s attitude however is one which in this second decade of the 21st century is all too rarely seen. Also referenced during the same press conference was Rio Ferdinand and the Londoner’s reasons for retiring from international football whilst continuing to ply his trade at Manchester United. Keane remain baffled and said he couldn’t supply an answer as to why Ferdinand would quit the international game while still performing at such a high level on the club stage.

Countless players over recent years have quit the international arena so as to prolong their club career. Luminary names such as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Jon Terry to name but a few have all quit international football whilst still at the peak of their playing capabilities.

The thought of how attitudes towards international football have changed over recent decades came into my mind when reading a wonderfully well written article (penned by Louis Massarella) in the match programme for this week’s England -v- Republic of Ireland clash which chronicled the life and times of Sir Bobby Robson.

The piece detailed Bobby’s all consuming passion for representing and managing his country. Bobby’s wife Lady Elsie Robson stated that for her husband, a football person’s playing career is always the highlight but “very few people ask me about my playing career” despite the fact that Bobby won 20 England caps (in a time when there was considerably less international football), played at two World Cups and was replaced in the national team by no less a name than one Bobby Moore. Robson would also make more than 500 top flight appearances for Fulham and West Brom.

For Robson and anyone of his era, representing your country was the absolute zenith of the footballing pyramid though, having once stated:

People always ask me what my proudest moment was and I always say it was being asked to play for my country for the first time. In fact, I would say it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.

The most famous time of Robson’s career though was of course his eventful eight year period as manager of The Three Lions. Over the course of the two World Cups Robson presided over England, his side were only knocked out of the 1986 global finals by that (in)famous Maradona handball as Argentina went on to lift the trophy while four years later it was also the eventual champions, West Germany, that knocked out Robson’s side in a semi-final penalty shoot-out which is still England’s best performance at a foreign World Cup.

With the financial behemoth that the UEFA Champions League has now become, for many players and those involved/interested in football, the club game has greatly diluted the importance of international football. Players of course have a limited shelf life and they want to maximise the money they can make so some might argue that it is understandable that they do not prioritise playing for their country.

Not men like Robbie Keane though. Despite being oft maligned and frequently the butt of jokes (with the frequently repeated joke “Club X was my boyhood club” being particularly popular among keyboard warriors any time Keane changes club, which has been more often than most footballers) – playing for Ireland is the absolute zenith of the game for him. With his club LA Galaxy under no obligation to release Keane for this week’s Wembley friendly against England, Keane faced the wrath of his manager Bruce Arena in his desire to pass up his club commitments in the United States to be part of his country’s set up.

Despite the fact that Robbie Keane is now past his best as a footballer, he deserves great credit for his desire to represent his country. Not for him the quick buck of the club game (though he is of course handsomely paid), for Keane playing for his country is as good as it gets as a professional footballer. While the rewards at the top of today’s game are almost infinitely more handsome than Sir Bobby Robson’s day, one suspects that were he still alive, Bobby would have the same attitude.

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3 Responses

  1. Gareth Millward says:

    It’s not just the money that stops international football being the zenith (at least, not directly).

    Back when players and clubs were on a more equal financial footing, the “gap” between the Division One champions and the bottom of the table wasn’t that great. Talent was diffused throughout the league more evenly, rather than a handful of clubs being able to hoover up the talent. That meant domestic sides were weaker (in terms of individual talent) than national sides. Playing international football probably was the most demanding thing you could do.

    Now, only a few clubs can afford to buy, or hang onto the best players. Furthermore, now that we have the opportunity to sign players from anywhere on the planet, local talent is less important. A club like Manchester United can buy the best English players and supplement them with foreign-born players who are better than their English equivalents.

    In short, Barcelona are (were?) stronger than Spain; United stronger than England; Bayern stronger than Germany. In that sort of environment, international football is not the pinnacle of the sport. Many national sides are noticeably weaker than the top clubs, leading to World Cups full of turgid matches between disjointed superpowers, and well-organised-but-never-looking-to-score mid-ranking nations. It only holds emotional value.

    Which is the main problem here. Increased migration has meant that people don’t just hold one nationality or national identity. With footballers earning money, living, raising families and being raised in multiple countries, that sense of nationalism has waned. International football was invented as a nationalistic propaganda tool for the days of Empires, and that politics is no longer relevant.

    As emotionally important as international football is to a lot of fans, I’m not sure it is to many players (and a growing minority of fans too). When I can watch the best players in the world on my Japanese TV, sat on my Swedish drinking Dutch lager and eating Italian pizza delivered to me by a Turkish guy on a French scooter every weekend – international football doesn’t really have the same pizazz.

    As a disclaimer – this is the internet, full of people looking to take offence – I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It just means the world is changing. The breaking down of national boundaries is both a positive and negative thing, depending on your point of view. It’s brought increased quality to the club game, and allowed cultures to mix and learn from one another. On the other hand, it’s led to far more homogenisation of football and may signal the death of the international game.

  2. James Clancy James Clancy says:

    Interesting riposte Gareth Millward.

  3. olli thomson says:

    I agree with Gareth Millward completely and would also add that FIFA and EUFA also have a lot to answer for when it comes to the decline in the reputation and credibility of international football.

    The expansion of the world cup to 24 teams in 1982 was justified; the further expansion to 32 in 1998 was not. IT led to precisely the kind of turgid, inconsequential matches Gareth notes.

    FIFA would have us believe that the competition was expanded to support football beyond the traditional group of nations, but by devaluing the premier international competition it has done nothing of the sort. FIFA should be honest enough to admit that financial reasons have been the primary driver of this policy – more countries, more games, more sponsors, more income.

    Now UEFA are following the same route in Europe expanding the next European Championship from 16 teams to 24 – this from association with only 54 members to start with.

    Add in the ever expanding list of pointless ‘friendlies’, again primarily designed to boost income, that disrupt the league season, throw in FIFA’s totally cynical choice of Qatar as world cup hosts and their subsequent mooting of shifting the event to the winter months disrupting every European league. and it’s not hard to see why fans and players are less than thrilled by the current state of international football.

    As for Robbie Keane’s mystification over Rio Ferdinand’s decision to quite international football, it seems pretty obvious to me. Why should Ferdinand, who at 34 and managing a number of injuries, still has the possibility of playing serious football and winning major trophies with his club, risk playing for England in pointless friendlies in order to get into a team that might not even qualify for the world cup and that, if it does, has no chance of winning it?

    It’s easy to be cynical about players’ motives and dismiss them as driven by money, but players like Ferdinand, Scholes and Terry are driven by the desire to win – that’s why they are winners in the first place. That desire to win will be more likely to produce success with their clubs rather than with international teams competing in FIFA’s circus.

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